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.
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.
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.