Public relations is suffering from bad PR. The industry is seen as the corporate vehicle for hiding the truth, and somehow wringing good news from bad. Have an oil spill? Did a patient die on the operating table? Did the chairman have an affair with an assistant? No problem… call in the PR team. It has created a sad situation, and we all suffer the consequences.
Actually, it’s not hard to see how we got here.
Restoring PR as a business function
It’s only natural that companies would call in their best communicators when faced with a crisis. But it is both politically and financially unwise to reserve the PR function for crises. Public relations should always be actively involved in corporate planning, able to contribute to the directions being set, rather than just figuring out how to put the best spin on the decisions once they’ve been made. If companies had sound advice on communications for every decision, at least two significant benefits would result:
- PR would no longer be seen only as a vehicle for disguising bad news, and all corporate communications would gain more credibility; and
- Companies would be able to anticipate potential public-relations problems before directions are set and decisions made.
The greatest tragedy is that not only the general public, but many decision-makers and even PR teams themselves, have come to see public relations primarily as a resource for crisis communications. The best way to change that is to make sure the team is at the table whenever policy is being set, not just when there’s bad news to wrap.
On an even deeper level though, there is another trend that needs to be reversed. Unfortunately, it seems to be increasingly more natural for businesspeople to lie when it’s expedient to do so. Companies and leaders — and hey, all of us — have to get back to believing that it is never okay to lie. From a credibility, integrity, and yes often even a financial point of view, the bottom line is better served by the truth rather than a lie. Consider Watergate, the Canadian military’s Somolia crisis, Clinton and Lewinsky, and many, many, many other situations. How much better would the leaders have emerged if they had insisted on honesty from the very beginning? Even after the initial serious mistakes had been made, the situations could still have been kept from spiraling out of control if more integrity had been shown in facing the truth.
Imagine if the leaders in those situations had had the courage to stand up early and say, “I have made a serious mistake, and I want to set things right. I will not hide or disguise the truth in any way, and I will not tolerate it from anyone else.” It might have turned those crises into opportunities to show character, and start building for a better tomorrow. It didn’t happen, but it could have.
And from a credibility, integrity, and financial point of view, it should have.
Shonali Burke says
Amen, Lorne. The tragedy of PR is that most of the time, we’re called in to do damage control… when we’re not being asked to “generate buzz” by business owners/organizations with little-to-no thought as to if/how that buzz will actually impact the desired business outcomes.
One of the rules I’m trying to adhere to now, especially when evaluating new clients, is whether their business premise is fundamentally sound. I will not – repeat NOT – start work if it’s not; and if they haven’t even gotten their messaging and communication fundamentals down, then that’s where I start. Outreach can wait; first make sure the product/service is sound and you know you’re actually going to serve your stakeholders well. If not, then it really is just “spin.”
Lorne Pike says
Great comment, Shonali. It’s actually similar to what “branding” has become in marketing, where companies will say that want to rebrand themselves without any understanding of the full range of elements that make up a company’s brand. It’s not just a marketing plot, and public relations is not just buzz or spin. Thanks for your example of how you’re standing up for that.