When Your PR Problem Isn’t About PR

For PR professionals, it’s interesting when a particular company or public figure is said to have a “PR problem.” Of course the term is used as shorthand, but it can signal that brand-watchers are misdiagnosing what’s wrong. “Bad PR” generally means negative media coverage, but the coverage is often a symptom rather than the problem. You can’t fix the situation until you understand what’s causing it.

Take the case of outgoing White House Communications Director Bill Shine. Shine announced his resignation last week, and though he will reportedly join the Trump 2020 campaign, the shift was seen as a soft landing for the former Fox executive. Shine was ousted because his boss, the president, isn’t happy about the bad press he’s received since Shine joined the White House operation eight months ago.

As one insider quipped to Jane Mayer in her deeply reported New Yorker article about Trump’s relationship with Fox News, “Trump thought he was getting Roger Ailes but instead he got Roger Ailes’s gofer.”

Ouch. That assessment may be harsh, but the evidence suggests the president’s biggest problem isn’t his press operation. The Trump White House has had five communications directors in only two years; it’s like a client that keeps churning through PR agencies in search of the perfect fit. You don’t have to be an expert to see that the perfect fit will never arrive.

When in doubt, blame the PR guy

The blame-the-PR-guy reflex isn’t limited to the White House. Facebook is a good example of a company beset with so-called PR problems that aren’t just about public perception, but some distinct realities, as well as a failure to respond appropriately by the company itself. At the recent Morgan Stanley conference COO Sheryl Sandberg seemed to frame its problems as a matter of public relations. “We need to tell our story better,” she’s quoted as saying. “And so we’re working hard to prevent the bad, but also to let the good stories be told.” Maybe Sandberg isn’t blaming her comms staff in particular, but she certainly isn’t acknowledging the reality. That’s the first and most important step in turning around public perception.

Most PR professionals have experienced the client who’s in denial about his problems, and it’s one of the most self-defeating situations we encounter. Not all are punitive, like the CEO who instantly axes the PR team over an unflattering interview. But those who hide the truth from their communications staff – and themselves — are the most insidious. PR pros aren’t magicians, and denial is a dangerous state for a chief executive or public personality.

Clients deserve the truth, even if they can’t handle it

My agency once won a digital reputation assignment from a client that suffered from terrible online reviews, among other challenges. It didn’t take much research to learn that its customers were right to be angry. Our PR proposal made it clear that if the company didn’t change its practices, our work would be in vain. I was surprised when the client we told us why we won the engagement against three larger digital marketing agencies who promised better results through SEO tricks. “You were the only one who told the truth,” he said — a pretty stunning comment, given the flagrancy of the problem. The relationship was successful because it was based on a realistic assessment of the situation, even if the client’s practices didn’t change as much as we hoped.

A company in denial of its unforced errors, on the other hand, is impossible to help. There are many situations that can be improved by a strategic PR and reputation campaign. Low visibility; an outdated perception; a competitive challenge; a public mistake that’s acknowledged and corrected — the list is very long. But the client who thinks the PR guy can fix anything he breaks, a la Olivia Pope, is like an alcoholic who says he’ll stop drinking tomorrow. Unless he really wants to change, it will never happen. “Good PR” isn’t just the result of a skilled communications officer’s work or a PR consultant’s media jujitsu. In part it grows out of behavior that’s fair and ethical, and until and unless that prevails, your “PR” probably won’t improve.

Can You Turn Bad Publicity Into Good PR?

When Gap unveiled a new logo last month, the negative buzz forced it to backpedal and eventually restore the original, iconic identity. It was a miss for Gap…or was it? Logo-gate may have awakened brand fans and made it more relevant than it’s been in years.

Accident? Probably. But there are ways to turn a PR failure into something that strengthens your brand and your business. Here are a few techniques that helped companies turn around embarrassing mistakes.

Apologize. Where offense has been given, a prompt apology is necessary. And it shouldn’t be drafted by lawyers. To have teeth, a mea culpa should be swift and sincere, and it should take responsibility. A textbook example is Jet Blue’s response to the “Valentine’s Day massacre” that stranded passengers and buffeted its reputation in 2007. Then-CEO David Neeleman hit the right notes in an apology tour that helped it straighten up and fly right.

Fix the problem. Better yet, be part of a larger solution. The classic lemons-to-lemonade strategy after a misstep is to be part of the fix for everyone. Mattel set a new standard when it announced enhanced product inspection and supplier audits following massive product recalls of toys made in China. JetBlue also raised the airline industry bar with its “Passenger Bill of  Rights,” a kind of flight plan to prevent incidents like the one that nearly grounded its business.

Share your learnings. Office Depot, a client of my former firm, took advantage of its own experience weathering successive hurricanes at its Delray Beach, Florida headquarters over a period of years. It turned adversity to advantage with a PR campaign that focused on disaster preparation and management for small businesses, – a key customer segment.

Stay the course. What if you’re right, despite a public rush to judgment? Royal Caribbean opted to keep on going, even in the face of withering criticism, after it chose to have its luxury cruise liner call at Labadee, Haiti in the days after the earthquake. It was undoubtedly a tough call, but most experts (and more importantly, passengers) agree that supporting the Haitian community with both supplies and commerce was the right move.

Fight back. Years ago, a New York Post photographer snapped a photo of a mouse eating a doughnut in the window of a midtown Manhattan Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. It was front-page news, and the late-night media feasted on the embarrassment for weeks. Dunkin promptly slapped franchisee Riese Organization with a lawsuit. Though the suit dragged on, it helped send a message that the company was serious about health and safety violations.

Use humor. For a self-inflicted wound, you don’t always need to dust off the crisis handbook. Sometimes a blend of straightforwardness and humor can do the job, especially if it’s authentic to your brand. David Letterman proved it in his handling of the extortion plot against him.

Overcompensate. Often it’s better to “do the time” – in the form of financial penalties, customer retribution, or legal settlement. Alaska Airlines probably wishes it had offered more to passenger Dan Blais when he first complained about his family’s treatment by the carrier. Blais created a blog titled “Alaska Airlines Hates Families” after tangling with the airline. His family’s tickets were given away just before take-off as his wife struggled with a baby diaper emergency in a restroom. Personally, I think the airline was within its rights. But they bungled the customer service piece, and often, being right isn’t enough to save you from the wrong kind of PR.