Judgment and Janitor Public Relations

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories. (Clunk, clunk!)

That’s how the long-running Law & Order television series describes the United States criminal justice system.

Sounds simple enough, but anyone with prime time cable might argue it to be the opposite in reality.

It’s difficult for high-profile cases to get a fair trial these days.

Before the facts can even be sorted out, news organizations are scrambling to put together as many pieces as possible for any assemblance of a story.

Think of the recent televised trials like Casey Anthony or the grand daddy of them all, O.J. Simpson. Despite their verdicts, the court of public opinion had weighed in far earlier on these two individuals.

But it’s not just the salacious stories that are rendered guilty before a trial. There are also corporate crimes and crimes against humanity. What happens when crisis strikes a company or leader who suddenly has a reputation issue on their hands?

Enter the spin zone

It makes me cringe to read about high-profile companies with serious crisis communications issues seeking public relations assistance or enhanced reputation services after the fact.

Some recent examples include the following:

What does all this mean for PR?

I commented on Frank Strong’s Sword and the Script post about the Gaddafi issue that these instances of leaders or companies with less than stellar records calling upon PR assistance actually do PR professionals a disservice.

It’s common knowledge among PR practitioners that any corporate strategy should include good public relations with proactive communications.

The thinking goes that if you are consistent in your message and in your interactions with your customers or stakeholders, then the whole issue of crisis communications (or issues management if you will) is null and void. You have theoretically prepared for those instances and already have a good foundation to work from with loyal stakeholders in place.

But, as with the criminal justice system, what works in theory does not always work in practice.

And even the best-laid plans cannot be foolproof from every crisis situation.

That’s when the big guns are called upon to “spin” the story for the masses and to muck up the public image of PR. I said in my comment to Frank’s post that a better name for the PR folks who have to clean up these corporate/image messes should be “janitor.”

No amount of PR, depending on how you define that, can really clean up these messes.  In essence, the damage is done and all these cases seem to do is drag down PR’s reputation with them.

Any silver lining?

Despite the rant nature of this observational post, I find there is a movement within PR to improve upon these negative connotations with the profession.

It was by complete happenstance that as I was drafting this very post, some cosmic power intervened and delivered into my Google Reader a guest post by Glenn Ferrell on Gini Dietrich’s aptly named Spin Sucks blog.

Mr. Ferrell offers seven ways for the PR industry to change its perception. It’s a good start, and I found his observations hit on the “janitor PR issue” among others in the field. But there’s still more do be done that can’t be fixed with one post.

What do you think? Should PR agencies/practitioners accept assignments for clients or companies with less than stellar or criminal reputations?

What do you think PR can do about the issue of janitor PR and clients with judgements hanging over their heads?

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August 3, 2011. Tags: , , , , . public relations.


  1. Lisa Gerber replied:

    Hi Krista,
    yes, yes and, well, yes. In all the examples you cite, it’s really too late to engage a PR agency. You hit it on the nail when you said “proactive”. If everyone had been behaving ethically in the first place, they wouldn’t be in need of crisis communications.
    Thank you for the link and the continued message. At Spin Sucks, our mission is to change the perception of the PR industry and it starts with all of us, doesn’t it?

    • Krista replied:

      Thanks for your comment, Lisa! Spin Sucks is a great resource and has at its heart a great mission for the PR profession. And who can’t like a blog with a name that calls it like it is ;)

  2. Heather Yaxley replied:

    Although in many cases organizations seeking PR in the heat of a crisis as an emergency remedy, may be looking to “spin” their way out of trouble, I believe that it is at these times that truly strategic PR can show its merit. This can be the trigger for organizations to realise that their previous approach has not been successful and this is a turning point. I have seen this to be the case in high profile examples and in less well known organizations.

    In the UK for example, the Soham murders of two young girls a few years ago which had unprecedented media and public attention really showed police authorities why they needed to have strategic rather than reactive PR presence. I also know of many practitioners whose status in their organizations has been improved from tactical press release distributor to communications expert as a result of deft handling once a crisis has occurred.

    I do wonder if it is a mistake however to rely on external resource at these times because that less of the value of strategic PR is probably not realised. The solution is simply seen as hiring in top guns when needed.

    • Krista replied:

      Hi Heather– thank you for sharing your perspective and case example. You raise a good point that these crisis situations are also opportunities to educate companies and leaders about the need for proactive PR. Perhaps that’s another silver lining to add to this cycle, that they will eventually learn to have better communications strategies and relationships with their stakeholders before the crisis hits. Thanks for stopping by :)

  3. Davina K. Brewer replied:

    Even with the best planning and crisis prep, mistakes will still happen and will need to be addressed. Another vote for damage control. Left unchecked things will get worse before they can get better, which may hurt everyone. As to taking such assignments, it depends. I know I wouldn’t take on anything so political or damaging but your L&O example underscores an ethos, a way of thinking: representation in the court of public opinion, the idea that justice and discourse cannot happen in the dark therefore both sides need to be represented. IDK.. I think if a PR firm can do it ‘right’ (see Heather’s comment) then maybe they can actually do a solid by the industry, show that it is more than mopping up the mess after the fact, maybe take steps towards being more proactive as you suggest. FWIW.

    • Krista replied:

      Good points, Davina–I was hoping this post would lead to this type of discussion. It’s more of a subjective issue as far as taking “messy” assignments, and I understand some PR pro’s excel at those types of assignments. My problem is when media scrutiny of said clients paints the PR practice in a similar bad light, thus throwing PR out with the bath water. BTW, I love your comment abbreviations :)

      • Heather Yaxley replied:

        Couple of quick thoughts stimulated by Davina/Krista’s discussion.
        First, it is often the case that perfectly competent in-house people have been giving PR advice that has been ignored (I’m sure that was the case at BP) and then a PR firm will be called into handle a crisis situation. This reveals a lack of respect for internal counsel in comparison to the huge fees that will often be paid to an outside voice – you can bet Edelman have charged massive sums much as an emergency plumber knows their value increases in times of crisis.

        My second thought is in regard of how PR practice is painted in a bad light through post-crisis analysis. Yes, this is often by the media who only see PR from their journalistic perspective – but what really irritates me is when they call on so-called PR experts who are vocal in criticising their colleagues. This has become much more noticeable with social and online media where it seems like PR consultants are ambulance chasers in their glee at slamming others in the field. We aren’t in the hot seat in these situations and often the simplistic advice that is offered by the armchair experts would be known to those who are faced with the unenviable challenge of reputation recovery. It is often the insiders who are responsible for the ongoing criticism of PR at such times.

      • Krista replied:

        You’ve hit on a few more really good points, Heather. I wouldn’t hold it against internal PR to call for external assistance in crisis situations, but that could be indicative of an underlying corporate priority issue.

        As far as PR folks calling each other out, that’s another component adding to the perception issue in PR. Those with the most attention get to contribute their viewpoint, for better or worse.

        Again, it’s great to explore these issues with you and everyone else on this discussion!

  4. Davina K. Brewer replied:

    I think Krista’s right about it being policy in some cases; in-house may not be staffed to run a crisis w/ enough experience and experts plus.. they still have their jobs to do too. Heather, ITA on whether or not the in-house counsel made the mistakes; I have serious doubts that BP’s internal PR team’s training and advice were responsible for ‘I want my life back’ fiasco. And yet.. observers may not see it that way and anyone from inside BP corporate comes with a Scarlett BP attached; outside agency – probably quietly working w/ in-house staff – gets a little more leeway not inheriting that taint and bias.

    Second is the process story and I think mainstream media likes to pick on PR a little when they can show it being bad. I don’t mind the post-game analysis when objectively offered, when the pundits are calling these mistakes what they are – anomalies, not what PR is really all about – then point out the other steps PR is doing right. But the armchair experts who just want to slam and pile on – without really offering insight into the breakdown – that irks me too. FWIW.

  5. Frank_Strong (@Frank_Strong) replied:

    Hey Krista — couldn’t agree with you more…in fact I think you’ve given me an idea for a post in return. Rather than a crisis case, I had a different train of thought: I’ve seen some young start-ups with new products hoping that PR can solve their problems, especially with a lousy or underdeveloped product. It can’t. It’s like putting a bandaid on a cut that needs stitches so you can run an extra few miles. The better approach is to go back, fix the issue, and re-visit PR when you have something to say. Thanks for the shout out!

    • Krista replied:

      Thanks, Frank! Looking forward to reading your next post :)

  6. Sharks Could Use Some PR « PR in Pink replied:

    [...] this isn’t the same as janitor PR, which I discussed in great detail last week. Sharks in this case aren’t specifically asking for any kind of crisis communications [...]

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