Advocacy Thought Leadership

Are We Fault Managers or Value Communicators?

Watching the barrage of news coverage last week that expounded on the personal indiscretions of politicians and celebrities made me consider what counsel I might have for these individuals. Clearly, prevention is worth a pound of cure, but most public relations professionals end up being asked for the cure. While I may be showing my age, my pondering conjured up the iconic image of Lucy, from the classic comic strip “Peanuts,” sitting at her psychiatrist booth with the sign, “The Doctor Is In.”

Clearly, Lucy was not a licensed professional. Her price for counsel (five cents) will likely provoke the immediate response, “You get what you pay for.” I won’t reveal how I know, but in the lyrics to the song of the same name from the musical “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” Lucy urges Charlie Brown to be transparent and open about his faults when he comes to her for advice. After he lists numerous shortcomings, there’s an interesting outcome: Lucy does “a 180” in her counsel and tells Charlie Brown that what’s unique about him is also his value and that’s what he should be touting.

As public relations professionals, this illustration brings up some key questions: Is it our role to make sure we know all the faults of our employers, clients and executives so we can be prepared to defend them? Or, is it more important to identify and understand its value and benefits to help develop the messaging?

Either way, do we run the risk of being perceived as a “spin doctor?”

Understanding today’s media landscape and developing an effective strategic approach to dealing with consumers, investors, media and management is exceedingly complex. In watching the landscape, it becomes more evident each day that anyone involved with a person or brand can release damaging information, which becomes international news within minutes.

While much of what we’ve seen aired in the past weeks isn’t information that any public relations team would probably be given, it does fall to our profession in many cases to help handle the impact. And, when you’ve demanded a place in the C-suite for years, don’t think there isn’t real work involved with maintain that seat at the table.

With this responsibility comes a great need to understand business values, strategic planning, crisis communication and consumer behavior. A simple publicist won’t help put it all back together again.

The changing role of public relations needs to follow what is happening in society. No longer can corporate communications teams simply look at the messaging that needs to be put out to employees or stockholders. These professionals are now overseeing reputation management. From Enron to BP and politicians to performers, we have seen demonstrated, over and over, that successful public relations is as much about counseling as it is communicating.

As I wrote in an op-ed for AOL News last year,, I find it a rather bizarre notion that after the fact — after a crisis — a company can seemingly try to erase all ill-will against it in the public and media’s eyes by vowing to be more honest or more transparent or to display a greater degree of disclosure.

In reality, this all-out focus on corporate transparency should have been in place for decades, without the need to publicize the effort. If the WikiLeaks dumps have taught us anything, it’s that the public has an insatiable thirst for information and knowledge, albeit whether they’re fact or not.

Reactive management of a company’s reputation represents an outdated model of crisis communications. It stems from a misguided belief that any bad news can be mitigated with enough messaging, calls for internal investigations or TV appearances where the CEO is seen in the heart of the action, making sure things are getting done, when they seemingly weren’t before the mess.

Admit it, Charlie Brown, every company has its faults. The businesses and communicators who acknowledge this reality and have a plan for dealing with it will be the ones to thrive and survive. It will make them unique and, perhaps, even become their value to customers and employees alike; ironically, much like Lucy’s simple counsel to her old friend, Chuck.

That will be five cents, please.

Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, is immediate past chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, and director of partnership development at HGTV in Knoxville, Tenn.

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