Simply put, this past year has been one humdinger from the public relations point of view.
- The continuing fallout from the BP disaster remains a news media staple and reminds us not only of the importance of communicating with our stakeholders but also of actually demonstrating that we care about their welfare.
- The varying political catastrophes in the Mideast and elsewhere remind us that, no matter how much “polish” we put on the frog’s public persona, it’s still a frog with all its warts and icky-feeling skin.
- The meteoric burnout of several public figures’ power and popularity because of personal and professional indiscretions reminds us that, especially in today’s uber-connected world, our actions are viewed…and judged…by others…quickly and decisively.
I wouldn’t begin to suggest that effective public relations techniques would or could have averted any of these incidents. But I would suggest that, had any of the “stars” in any of these episodes taken the time to listen to the advice and counsel of their public relations advisors, at least some of these incidents would not now occupy a place in the “Public Opinion Hall of Shame.”
With whom does the fault lie?
I would argue…with both parties. On the “guilty” party, absolutely, for having perpetrated the act that garnered the attention and gave life to the crisis. And on the PR counsel…where there was counsel…for not taking a firmer stand as the “conscience of the organization.”
We are not hired (hopefully) to be “yes-men” or Tom Sawyer-ish whitewashers. We should have been brought on to monitor the opinions and expectations of our organization’s stakeholders and guide our leaders in communicating with those important parties.
Having said this, I also will hasten to say that I realize we’re not superheroes. We can advise. We can caution. We can even lecture. But we can’t control.
Our responsibility…our duty…should be to present those who we represent with the realities of their specific situation and our best estimation of the consequences of their actions.
The medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath admonishes doctors, first and foremost, to “do no harm.”
As public relations professionals, our pledge should be to “assist clients or employers in understanding the harm that can come from choosing a particular course of action.”
PRSA’s “Code of Ethics” offers clear, easily understood guidelines…and examples…to help us craft understandable, actionable guidance for our clients or employees. The examples are such that business leaders as well as rank-and-file employees can refer to them for “reality checks” if need be.
As the old saw goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” and I am confident that history will repeat itself in the form of environmental disasters, political unrest, and moral and ethical blunders.
My hope is that we will learn from the past and work diligently to prevent similar situations from arising in the future.
Happy New Year!
Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. He also is Visiting Lecturer, Organizational and Professional Communication (Graduate), at Regis College in Weston, MA. Prior to his move into academia, Kirk practiced nonprofit and government public relations and marketing for more than 35 years in the US as well as Asia. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Kirk is a Member of PRSA’s national Board of Directors and has held leadership positions with PRSA Educators Academy and PRSA Northeast District as well as with the Boston and Hawaii PRSA chapters.