Truth Is The New Black: The Case For Authenticity In PR

At a meeting of the Council of PR Firms last week, keynoter Marc Pritchard, P&G’s Chief Marketing Officer and the man responsible for spending more marketing dollars than any human on earth, called public relations “the most authentic form of marketing.”

It’s a crowd-pleasing line, at least in a room full of PR professionals. Now, I’m sure you can argue that all forms of marketing can benefit by driving up the authenticity quotient. In fact, Jonathan Baskin got the truth ball rolling this week by doing just that in an eloquent call-to-action in AdAge)

Admittedly, truth can be a potent differentiator in big-budget advertising. There’s often a gap between controlled marketing messages and the reality of consumer or client experience. That’s precisely why going against the grain can differentiate. After all, who among us expects advertising “truths” to be impartial?

Just look at the Domino’s Pizza campaign to launch a new and improved product earlier this year. Domino’s tossed the dice by baldly admitting that its earlier recipe just didn’t cut it. The campaign has won widespread praise for its “radical transparency.” And truth-starved customer apparently ate it up as well.

But, Pritchard’s comment went to the heart of what a great PR campaign should be, and it had a special resonance for those of us who bridge PR and marketing. With PR and word-of-mouth, the authenticity gap is more unanticipated, and the results can be far more detrimental to brand reputation. Here, we’re dealing with editorial and social media, rather than paid and controlled messages. We’re talking about depth of narrative, and we’re trading control for credibility.

Take Tiger Woods. His fall from grace was a championship season for PR pros offering advice and insights into managing his image crisis. But the most astute insight may have been that his PR worked too well, and without a basis in truth. The image of steely discipline, dedication to work and family, and self-abnegation clashed utterly with the reality that was messily splashed over tabloids and gossip sites.

Another example is BP. If it hadn’t tried so hard to convince us of its commitment to social and environmental issues “beyond petroleum,” would its reputational beating have been any milder? It’s hard to say, but when editorial media feel duped, they tend to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The truth gap is always there. But when it’s too wide, and when it breaches a fundamental level of trust, the damage to credibility and reputation can be incalculable. That, to me, is the best argument for a PR program to be based on a brand essence or a business’s fundamental truth. Only then can we live up to Pritchard’s billing as the most authentic form of marketing.

When Should An Agency Fire A Client?

Towards the end of season four of “Mad Men,” we see Don Draper take out a full-page ad in The New York Times to announce that his firm will no longer accept tobacco clients. The ad paints the move as an ethical decision and even implies that the agency’s split from its largest client, Lucky Strike, was voluntary. The truth, of course, is that Don is “blowing smoke.” The ad is a desperate attempt to “change the conversation” about his struggling firm.

But, is it ever good business to fire a client? Most of us have contemplated it, and many have fantasized about it, but we don’t do it lightly. Breaking up is not only hard to do, it’s particularly painful during lean times. Here’s my take on when you’re better off parting company.

It’s an abusive relationship. At the height of the dot-com boom, my firm worked for a big-brand company under a Marketing Director who was insulting, unprofessional, and unreasonable in her demands. I didn’t resign the business, and I’ve always regretted it. Having that brand on my firm’s roster just wasn’t worth the damage to my team’s morale.

It’s a (financial) loser. This is often the reason why agencies throw in the towel, but it should only happen when sincere attempts to correct the situation have failed. Some degree of scope creep is natural. But a client whose expectations and demands simply can’t be managed after candid discussions is something else.

It’s tying you down. Sometimes, a smallish client can conflict you out of other business. “Mad Men” fans also saw this last season when Sterling Cooper resigned a regional air carrier to take a shot at American Airlines. I had nearly the exact experience in a past agency life, and in our case, too, we went down in flames. Ditching a decent client for a shot at a larger one rarely pays off.

It’s giving you a bad name. Most of us wouldn’t knowingly go to contract with an unethical business, but what if the client asks you to do something questionable? It’s never worth the risk. Or, maybe it’s a company famous for churning through every agency in town, and you’re getting that kind of rep. Not good.

They want to play the field. The decision not to defend the business in the case of an agency review is understandable. But, it’s often made out of emotion rather than business logic. This is one where you need to coldly calculate the odds, then put everything you’ve got behind your decision.

They’re using you. Clients that use agencies to collect fresh ideas generally don’t last more than a year. It pays to take a close look at their agency track record, and to question them closely about their, um, intentions.

It’s not a fit. If you’ve outgrown the client (or they you), you’re moving in different directions, and you don’t communicate, it may be time for an intervention. But if you can’t envision a future with the company, it’s probably time to cut ties.

Trust And The Age Of Prank PR

It seemed like a bold PR strategy and a decisive move toward corporate responsibility and transparency. Chevron Vice Chairman George L. Kirkland said. “We’ve got problems and challenges, and we too make mistakes, but we’re telling truths no one usually tells, and looking wide-eyed into the future.

Wow. Except he never said it, of course. In its latest, brilliantly timed ruse, the activist group Yes Men subverted Chevron’s new corporate brand campaign with one of its own creation. It was like a through-the-looking-glass version of a well-planned and financed corporate social responsibility campaign, complete with a fake website, bogus press releases with phony spokesperson quotes, even a faux AdAge piece posted on a real-looking but false AA website.

The activists used all the standard PR tools to hijack the actual corporate communications campaign. They even faked the company’s response to the hoax, calling their own ruse “environmentalist subterfuge.” How meta.

Welcome to the age of prank PR. Whether a rogue employee video, a satirical Twitter feed, or a carefully choreographed fake release, no brand is safe. The hoaxsters called the fallout from this week’s PR pranks “media slapstick,” and that’s exactly what it was.

So, what’s causing this? Part of it is the rise of social media and the nature of viral content, but at its heart, it’s a matter of trust. It’s not surprising that in an age when trust in corporate, government, and religious institutions is very low, satirists fill the void. As Gene Grabowski suggests in AdAge, that erosion of confidence and credence includes not just corporate America, but our media icons. At a time when Jon Stewart’s practicing real journalism and Colbert’s testifying – in character – before Congress, the line between reality and satire is getting awfully thin.

But, for me, the craziest part of the hoax was how non-crazy it looked; the messages of the faked campaign actually seem credible in the post-BP era. It’s not a comment on the authentic, professional Chevron campaign (I haven’t studied it), but today, there’s just no room for puffy PR claims or messages without substance.

It’s clear that post-BP, trust in corporate communications is lower than it’s ever been. Which means the bar for us, the communicators, just got higher.

Crisis Management: Lessons From The Chilean Mine Rescue

As the world watched, the government of Chile showed not only leadership, but remarkable PR and communications savvy as it sought to free 33 miners trapped underground for over two months. Its handling of the ordeal was like a mirror image of the BP disaster. Here are some crisis management learnings we can unearth from the management of the rescue.

Take responsibility. In stepping up to take over the rescue operation, Chile’s Sebastian Pinera took an enormous calculated risk. The decision could have been influenced by earlier criticism of his government’s slow response to an earthquake near Concepcion. Whatever the reasons, government action contrasted sharply with what we in the U.S. saw post-Hurricane Katrina, and after the BP disaster, where the government chose to leave BP in charge. For Pinera, it clearly paid off.

Manage expectations. Remember the initial estimates that the miners might be out by Christmas? Whether simple caution, or communications strategy, this was a masterstroke. It took some of the pressure off, enabled the government to succeed beyond all hopes, and made it look very proficient in the process.

Have a plan. Early on, the Chilean government communicated a Plan A and a Plan B for rescue in a clear, methodical way. It looked organized and in control. Compare their performance with that of BP, which lurched from one solution to the next, even crowdsourcing ideas for stopping the spill in a way that suggested uncertainty and incompetence.

Accept help, but maintain control. A fascinating aspect of the rescue has been the technical help and advice the government sought from private companies and experts at NASA and elsewhere. The authorities made it clear that no effort would be spared to ensure a safe resolution to the crisis. Yet, they kept tight control over communications, ensuring that the government was the chief source of updates. This is the first rule of crisis PR.

Sweat the small stuff. One of the biggest stories around the rescue operation has been the focus on the smallest details of the plan, from the construction of the tube, to the monitoring of each miner’s health. The government’s meticulousness conveyed not only competence, but caring.

Be transparent. The Chilean PR machine was proactive, consistent, and transparent in providing updates to the media. They never seemed to be obscuring facts or delaying disclosure, which often happens when the pressure’s on.

Be social. The government also used social media to support its communications, setting up a Flickr page of photos that documented every dramatic moment as the miners began to emerge into the light.

Be visible. Chile’s Minister of Mining was at the site virtually around the clock, and President Pinera appeared frequently as operations shifted into high gear. Sure, the head guy can get updates from his office, but when lives are at stake, optics really matter. Sometimes you just have to be there.

Five Things I Learned On The Client Side

Guest post by Patricia Gibney

After many years in the agency world – from boutiques to multinationals – I found myself in that magical place called in-house. As a client, I looked forward to developing a company-wide communications strategy. I envisioned following an orderly protocol for media relations, being the internal expert and adviser to senior management, and having smart agency partners.

The reality was very different. Senior executives called journalists directly without consulting my department. PR firms were considered vendors, to be held at arm’s length. Communications strategy was frequently a work in progress.

The bottom line: being on the client side comes with a whole set of issues and challenges few agency people understand or take into account. Here are a few learnings from the other side of the table, based on my experience as a client at two different companies, working with several major PR firms.

Agency teams are myopic. Working with the agency is just one small part of a typical client’s job. Want to really understand why a client doesn’t get back to you with those edits or feedback on a proposal?  Spend time with them. Ask them about their job, what they’re responsible for, how they like to work with an agency/team members, and what their bosses expect. Not only will you come away with a greater respect for the client’s depth and breadth of responsibilities, you may discover ways to make a real difference in their work and grow your business in the process.

Service trumps all. Creativity and strategic skills are the price of entry, but what sometimes set agency teams apart was how quickly they returned my calls. Would you believe that I regularly had trouble getting monthly reports from one mega-firm whose fee was over $50,000 per month? Poor service can drag down the entire relationship.

The best teams take responsibility. Even when they’re not responsible.  While ideally a single e-mail or call from an account person should put an issue back in the client’s court for resolution, it often doesn’t work that way. Myopia aside, helping to keep me on top of my job helped avoid the black-hole syndrome for the best teams I partnered with, and it helped our relationship even more. Don’t confuse a lack of response with a lack of interest.

Budgets are sacred.  Few things upset a client more than a mishandled budget, and agency people can be cavalier, or even sloppy, about overages. Don’t let it happen…but if it does, launch an early warning system and be prepared with potential solutions.

Perfection is hard to come by. Not all executives are great with media, and not all corporate stories are compelling. It’s just a fact of life that an agency must sometimes work with raw material that’s less than ideal. While concerns need to be expressed and realistic expectations set, the agency’s job is to help me make the best of the situation by working hard, not complaining about what is lacking. A team who does that will earn my respect, and my business.

Patricia Gibney has held senior communications positions both in-house and at major public relations firms. She was most recently Director of Communications at Avaya.