Does Everyone Deserve PR Agency Representation?

Would you serve as PR agency for a sexual predator? What about a celebrity with a reputation crisis?

The sexual abuse scandal surrounding CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi raises questions for PR agency professionals. The storm may be smaller than some recent mega-agency controversies like Ketchum’s work on behalf of Putin’s Russia, or Edelman’s involvement with ALEC. And Ghomeshi is less known here than in his native Canada, although his show, Q, is a cultural touchstone among millions of public radio fans. Still, his fall from grace brings up old questions about ethical guidelines and choices in our industry.

The reputation meltdown actually started with what seemed like a brilliant communications offensive after Ghomeshi was fired by CBC. As rumors of his violent behavior toward women threatened to become public, Ghomeshi moved to head off disaster with a bold stroke. In an emotional and painfully honest (so it seemed) Facebook post, he explained his predilection for “rough sex” as a choice of consenting adults, and the ugly charges as the actions of a spurned ex-lover. He pledged to sue CBC, which was cast as a reactionary for trying to legislate the private behavior of a star employee.

The offensive strategy could have worked – if, as Ghomeshi claimed, the behavior was consensual. Problem was, it quickly became clear that the incident wasn’t isolated…and it likely didn’t involve consent. More women came forward with strikingly similar narratives of sudden, unprovoked and disturbing acts of choking, slapping, and other violence. In short order, Ghomeshi was dropped by both his ongoing PR firm and the newer crisis agency retained to represent him, presumably for not telling the truth about the many women he’d allegedly abused.

After being fired by two PR firms and excoriated in the press, does Ghomeshi have a right to representation? How does working for a suspected sexual abuser square with the public relations industry’s code of ethics? What self-respecting reputation expert would take him on? Given rising concern about violence against women – from professional athletes to campus rape – and the tendency for much of it to go unreported or be covered up, it’s a third-rail issue for any PR agency who takes on his case. And unlike the law, where even murderers have a right to representation, our business is not as simple as serving as a media mouthpiece for a boldfaced name. At least it shouldn’t be. This is a situation that should scare off Olivia Pope.

In a post titled “Whitewashing Despots” Thomas Eppes, PRSA’s Ethics Chair, offers guidance. It reminds us that ethical communications in our industry isn’t about which clients we represent; it’s about the way we go about it. In other words, if the client tells the truth, places the public interest first, and “supports and ensures the free flow of accurate and unprejudiced information,” it may well be an ethical choice to represent him.

That’s probably a tall order, but Eppes’ post made me think of a politically progressive colleague who went to work for a company with conservative views and policies. His lefty friends were horrified; some speculated he did it for money, while others thought it was ego. He said he wanted to effect change, and wouldn’t you know, the company’s policies really did undergo a slow transformation. Whether that was due to his influence or outside pressure, I was never sure.

But PR is about persuasion in the end. For any PR professional who fears being dismissed as a spinmeister, actual influence over a client’s ethical choices is the ultimate prize. It may be quixotic, but if a communications professional can persuade a client to embrace truth and transparency, the move to represent him is not only an ethical decision, but a wise one. I can’t know the truth about the accusations against Jian Ghomeshi, but he’s in a terrible corner, and it seems largely of his own making. For his sake, I hope he finds a PR professional who can represent him and do it both well and ethically.

Next post: Six Reasons An Agency Should Drop A Client.

Why Young, Innovative Companies Should Consider PR A Priority

For some companies, it can be challenging to think about PR, but if you’re an innovative startup with a great story, a solid communications plan is a smart idea. It can be tempting to focus solely on “keeping the lights on” in the early phases of life, but there are plenty of good reasons why so-called “disruptor” companies need to think about communications early on. Here are just a few.

Communication is everything. Even before you opened your doors (or app, or online community), you already made dozens of decisions about how to communicate with the world. Everything from how the company got its name to the way services and products are described are components of a compelling communications strategy. After all the initial hard work it took to get started, why would you not continue to invest in a strong communications plan? Positioning your brand for launch is only the beginning.

Great (innovative) stories want to be told. The very definition of disruptive innovation has to do with a concept that rises to the top of the pile because it’s so different and new, it relentlessly changes the marketplace. Companies like Spotify and Dropbox have changed the way we think and behave, and the public clamors to understand who they are and where they fit in to their lives. An effective PR strategy can help make sure the story of the company, its products and services, is told accurately and told well — and avoids potential confusion or even controversy as word spreads. Which leads to…

Prepare for the unexpected. The most successful innovators have faced bumps in the road, and a strong, proactive approach to communications can help get out in front of confusing or controversial issues that might arise. One of the most famous disruptive innovators around shows us how relentless, early dedication to presentation  builds wildly successful PR.

You’re in it for the long haul. The startup phase is exciting and full of activity, but as an optimistic entrepreneur, you see your company having a long life. Investing in your communications team from the start helps build the kind of institutional memory that becomes elusive over time. You want people around who have been with you from the early days. Taking the effort to choose the right team and secure those relationships early on is a simple step that goes far in the long run.

6 PR Agency Pet Peeves

In my first PR agency job, during the times that drove us crazy, the owner had a favorite line, “This would be such a great business if it weren’t for the clients.”

Bada-bum. Of course he wasn’t serious, and the comment was a way to boost sagging morale when clients behaved in ways that his young staff couldn’t handle. But many years later, it’s still a reminder of the unique pressures of the agency life.

And it’s not just clients who can stress us out. We serve many masters, including direct bosses, media contacts, and various levels of client executives. There are the politics of the agency itself, those of the client company, and those of journalists and partners. Here are some of the top PR agency “pet peeves” that are probably familiar to many communications professionals.

The black hole. You send a cogent email or leave a reasonably important message, only to be met with….crickets.  Whether a journalist, business prospect, or client, an email or call greeted by silence is frustrating enough that it makes you question your career choice. A simple “no, thanks” can save time and dignity.

The tease.  Perhaps worse than the black hole is the journalist who bites on a story (or a pitch), then disappears. We’re very careful not to construe or report mild media interest as a sure thing, but when a reasonable lead disappears, it makes us look silly. On a whole other level, there are actually companies who get PR agencies to spin their wheels developing recommendations when they’re not really serious, or because they’re shopping for ideas. May karmic retribution follow!

The end-run.  Occasionally clients will go around the agency team and reach out to media directly, or maybe they’ve been contacted by a journalist and forget to tell the team. (A nationally known technology journalist once forwarded us a note from a client explaining that he was reaching out to “check up” on the agency. Argh.) If it’s accidental, you both look sloppy; if it’s not, there’s a bigger problem afoot.

The all-or-nothing client. Only a D1 story in The New York Times will do. Or, success is defined as a live national television interview or a keynote at Davos. No matter how well crafted a PR program or thought leadership strategy may be, there are no guarantees, and such a narrow (and lofty) definition of success is not likely to be fulfilled.

The risk-averse spokesperson.  The media interview chair can be a hotseat, particularly if there are complex issues involved or the client company is on the defensive, so it’s understandable if clients are nervous about a particular interview. But if the agency is recommending it, there’s likely to be a good reason. Concluding that a certain newspaper is always biased, or that a particular blog “has it in for me” is not a productive approach. Neither is turning down an interview after agreeing to do it.

The halfhearted inquiry.  A company is looking for an agency – or are they?  The goals are unclear, the net seems wide, and no budget information is available. A lack of solid information to inform a decision usually adds up to tail-chasing and lackluster participation, if at all.

PR Do’s And Don’ts To Increase Millennial Voter Turnout

Could a different kind of PR push help increase what is expected to be very low voter turnout for the 2014 mid-terms? The Robo-calls and endless TV ads and emails are still likely to result in a lower turnout than 2012, according to the The Pew Research Center. It posits that “[low] turnout in a midterm election also means the composition of the electorate looks different.” In a midterm like this one, the electorate tends to be older and whiter. So, although the election is tomorrow, if someone asked us today for some quick strategies to improve turnout among younger people and minorities, here’s what we might offer based on some informal polling of our own:

Do not call me, even maybe.  The telephone call is a dying communication form, with 66 percent of people between 25 and 29 using cellphones exclusively and texting edging out calling by a ratio of 5:3

Do invest in a spokesperson I believe in. Like one of my friends! 95% of millennials say that friends are the most credible source of product information. But if you still feel you must find a credible, bold-face name spokesperson to “rock my vote,” I will prefer a Kardashian, (said completely without irony.)

Do not place said spokesperson on the network morning shows. Matt who? George who? The younger cohort does watch TV, but not very often “on TV,” and when they do, according to this poll, none of the four major broadcast networks show up in the top 10 list compiled by millennials.

Do have spokespeople create their own online content. This kind of credibility goes much further with younger consumers of news. Keep it short, keep it visual and try to lead with something like: “This gubernatorial candidate stopped for coffee and you won’t believe what happened next…”

Do place bylines or other editorial content on… Buzzfeed, Vice, Reddit or other online source, since people between the ages of 18 and 37 trust online-only news sites (63%) more than they trust network TV news (57%) and cable TV news (60%).

Do keep my parents informed. Baby boomers, and those appealing to them, don’t despair! Despite all of the above, 75% of all millenials report that their parents have the most significant influence on their political decisions.