Public relations and communications professionals are pretty familiar with critics who like to paint what they do as inherently dishonest. Such negativity is hardly new, and maybe it goes with the territory. But the current focus on fake news seems to have exaggerated this perception, which is a serious challenge for developing and sustaining organisational credibility.
Take investigative reporter Adele Ferguson who recently attracted attention by exposing serious shortcomings at the Australian Tax Office. It was strong reportage, but Ferguson could not resist some gratuitous editorialising.
“It seems whenever an institution gets caught in the cross-hairs of a public scandal its first response is to bury its head in the sand,” she opined. “It is PR 101 and it’s why we have a major trust issue.”
No, Adele. It’s not PR 101 and it’s only one reason why we have a major trust issue. Ms Ferguson went on to suggest there is a ‘playbook’ which sets out the preferred response to any issue or reputational crisis – diminish the revelations by relegating them to a few isolated cases; sheet the incidents to the past; disparage the sources; and draw on statistics to make the scandal seem inconsequential.
There’s no denying that some organisations try this strategy. And as our fearless reporter correctly concluded, the public can see right through it. Furthermore, there is no disputing that reporters like Ferguson are absolutely justified to call out institutional dishonesty and spin when they see it.
However, to generalise that denial and obfuscation is PR 101 is no more accurate than saying that Journalism 101 is distort the facts; manufacture sensation; and make up quotes to suit the story. Any self-respecting journalist would rightly be offended by such an assertion. Yet some journalists seem to enjoy taking cheap pot-shots at fellow communication professionals working to manage sensitive and complex issues and crises.
In an essay for IPRA, entitled Spin City Fights Back, veteran journalist and crisis communicator Evelyn Holtzhausen wrote: “Journalists should spend more time on breaking great stories and less on berating PR for its shortcomings.” While his essay was deliberately provocative, he was right to conclude that “slagging each other off serves no productive purpose at all.”
Nevertheless, Adele Ferguson warrants a proper response. What is the real PR 101 when it comes to managing a reputational crisis? As she would have learned at any university course or professional training, the accepted crisis communication ‘playbook’ is not at all as she imagines. While each course and textbook states it slightly differently, the essential elements remain consistent:
- honestly state the facts as known
- express empathy and
- describe the actions being taken to put the situation right or to prevent it happening again.
Of course there is a lot more to it than that, but those should be the basic steps when an institution – as she put it – “gets caught in the cross-hairs of a public scandal.”
To state that some organisations misuse public relations to avoid facing up to a painful reality is a legitimate observation by any journalist. But to suggest – even in a casual throw-away line – that this is the standard modus operandi of responsible professionals is misleading, mischievous and just plain wrong.