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:
- News Corp hired Edelman to help with their PR strategy after the fallout of the phone-tapping scandal. Did that do Mr. Murdoch any good? Was he viewed as credible at his parliamentary hearing on July 19?
- Muammar Gaddafi of Libya is reportedly seeking counsel from a New York PR agency to help with his reputation, but it has yet to be revealed what if any effect that will have on his image following harsh clampdowns on Libyan protests.
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?