Troubled companies don’t have a PR problem. They have something much worse

August 4, 2010 at 10:30 pm 6 comments

The next person who reports about a company’s “public relations problem” is going to have a Doug problem on their hands…unless they’re talking about the company’s PR budget or something similar.

Over the past few months, hearing about BP’s public relations problem, Toyota’s public relations problem, some politician’s public relations gaffe and that actor’s or actress’s public relations nightmare has worn me out.

At best, these outfits and people have reputation problems. At worst, and more often, they have shoddy products, insulated executives who don’t know how to control their mouths, hands that accept money or other things that shouldn’t be accepted or a substance abuse or other problem. Or all of the above.

None of those constitute a public relations problem, although they are certainly challenges for the public relations practitioners handling the mess. Once things get started, I guess there are instances when a CEO doesn’t pay attention or understand what his PR practitioner is telling him. That, I guess, is a public relations problem, but not the way the media mean it.

Public relations is about establishing, enhancing and protecting reputations. It’s about establishing relationships between an organization and groups that impact that organization’s success. That means listening to both sides of that equation. It means telling the organization’s story the best way possible. And it’s about making sure both sides understand what the other side is doing. One of the ways we “talk to” the public is through the media, although nowadays, we’re just as likely to use social media tools.

No matter how well we do that, we can’t fix an assembly line that knowingly turns out cars with a defect or an outfit that fails to prepare for a technology failure. As much as we counsel executives on how to behave, we can’t overcome irresponsible behavior or statements. Those are not public relations problems. They’re much, much bigger issues.

I think we should start a movement: Every time a reporter writes about some organization’s screw-up and calls it a public relations problem, we should bury that reporter with emails and post cards explaining that when an organization or person acts stupidly or irresponsibly, it is not a public relations problem. Public relations practitioners, however, will use their insight and skills to help that company fix the problem – the root cause, not the appearance — and re-establish those relationships and, in the process, repair its reputation.

We as public relations practitioners should not sit by and let our craft be demeaned by allowing reporters and others to refer to irresponsibility as a public relations problem. Doing so creates a reputational issue for public relations practitioners.


Entry filed under: crisis communications, Dealing with social media, reputation. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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  • 1. PR Nottingham  |  August 5, 2010 at 5:28 am

    This is so true. Companies dealing with problems usually declare cause such as public relations problem but when come to analyze it can be more than that that needs attention.

  • 2. Ethan  |  August 5, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re saying that public relations, or public relations problems have a public relations problem?

    • 3. dougtheprguy  |  August 5, 2010 at 9:49 am

      Boy, I hope it wasn’t THAT confusing. I’m saying that it’s wrong to label operational problems as public relations problems. Failure to follow the PR counselor’s advice might be labeled a PR problem. And reporters constantly labeling such issues as public relations problems is a problem for the public relations field because it further muddies what we do. I would have written it that way, but who ever heard of a three-line post?

  • 4. Rosanna Fiske  |  August 5, 2010 at 10:44 am

    This is right on point! There is this perception that if things “look bad,” public relations may have been the problem. Public relations professionals are not there to make things “look good.” We’re there to counsel, communicate and act as the conscience of the organization while building relationships with its publics.

  • 5. J.D.  |  August 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Well said. Sadly, I think many of the PR crisis pundits contribute to the pile-on, not just journalists.

    • 6. dougtheprguy  |  August 9, 2010 at 4:43 pm

      I couldn’t agree with you more. If I get one more email from a “crisis expert” inviting me to a workshop on crisis communications (standard rules + hire me = crisis management), I’m going to drown.



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