Respect starts at home

What is it about public relations that means everyone is an expert? Go into any organisation and I bet you won’t find executives over-riding the lawyers or the accountants. But all bets are off when it comes to the public relations team.

Personally, I blame familiarity. Everyone watches TV, everyone listens to radio, and we all read the papers. So everyone thinks they’re communication experts.

But they’re not.

I recently advised a client that the best way to deal with some bad news was to make the facts public, and to provide the media with some very reasonable context that would serve to soften the blow. I told them categorically, several times, that unless they did this they’d find themselves on the unpleasant end of some damaging commentary.

I based this judgement on the severity of the news, the fact that our client’s customers were going to be informed anyway, and the resulting likelihood that the media would get hold of the story. Combine this with a basic knowledge of what specific journalists think of our client, and some other stuff about the market and the competitive situation, and the decision to take a proactive position was, in my experience, a shoo-in.

“Oh, no” I was told by the client’s PR team. “We don’t want to do that.” It turned out that the in-house guys knew instinctively that the proactive approach was correct, but that ‘we’ were actually two senior executives who thought they knew exactly how best to deal with the situation. And that was to keep quiet about it and hope it would pass by un-noticed.

I don’t know what concerns me most. That these executives think they know about PR, or that the in-house communicators shied away from confronting them!

I don’t know what concerns me most. That these executives appear to think they know as much about public relations as our team and their own in-house people, or that the in-house communicators shied away from confronting them and saying boldly, as I believe they should have: “no, sirs, you are wrong. And here’s why.”

I’ll acknowledge straight up that anybody receiving the advice of professionals has the absolute right to ignore that guidance. But when it is too easily ignored, or over-ridden on the basis of nothing more than the recipient’s opinion, I believe the professionals involved – be they in-house or external – owe it to themselves to ‘consider their positions’ carefully.

I’m also aware that having given the advice, or challenged a mistaken approach, the most sensible thing a spurned public relations professional can do in many cases is to retire to a safe distance, watch the fireworks and work out how to pick up the pieces. But that advice and challenge must be forthcoming in the first place, or what is the value of the professional’s function?

Anyway, in our case the inevitable occurred and the headlines were horrible. In the absence of any information supplied by our client, the core news was supplemented by old facts twisted to support the current context, information that was plain wrong, and negative comment from ‘industry sources’ whose views were suspiciously similar to the journalists writing the pieces.

A pleasure it was not. Vicarious or otherwise. A lot of work is now going to have to be put into correcting the misinformation and changing negative perceptions that were reinforced by this episode.

So why do many public relations professionals seem to put up so meekly with being over-ridden? And do they not dilute their own value hugely by allowing this to happen? In our line of work the customer (be it the in-house practitioner’s executive team, or the consultant’s client) is most definitely not always right. Still a customer, for sure, and still entitled to the respect and deference that this implies. But not the expert.

Granted, there are lots of public relations professionals, at all levels of experience and with or without formal qualification, who have proved able to command the respect of their executive teams and their customers, or who occupy some very powerful positions across the land. But for every one of these there are dozens of others who don’t feel able to assert their views. And many in quite senior positions. This is a pity, and probably a decent starting point for a separate debate on where and how the PR function should fit into an organisation.

But the point I’m arguing here is that until such time as most PR professionals, both in-house and consultancy, learn that it’s OK to stand up for themselves, and are prepared to argue their case strongly at the very highest echelons of business, we’re forever going to suffer the armchair experts who think public relations is simply a light-weight function peopled by feeble-minded Hooray Henrys and vacuous dolly-birds, whose advice and guidance can be ignored with impunity.

And in case you’re wondering, that client is now an ex-client. My decision.

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