By Lori Booker
Someone once compared public relations to Supreme Court Judge Potter Stewart’s comment about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Having spent my career in public relations, I can tell you that is dead wrong. If it smells like “PR,” sounds like “PR,” looks like “PR” – you’ve got the wrong people doing your public relations.
Public relations is strategic. It is subtle. It is critical to a company’s internal and external communications success and should be consistent with messaging, with an emphasis on the company’s mission. Fundamentally a company should always do the right thing to the point that people expect it. Think Publix, or L.L.Bean – when they go the extra mile, when they are featured in a positive news story, or have handled a bad situation with their expected panache, do you think, “Oh, that’s just their PR machine”? Of course not. You expect it because of their long-orchestrated results by some of the greatest PR minds in the business.
Real PR is more like listening to a great piece of music and slowly realizing that Eric Clapton sat in on the set. After a while, you just start to expect that caliber of sound.
PR vs. Advertising: The Credibility Factor
There’s a big difference between issuing press releases (very subjective) and earning positive coverage about your company. Will Rogers said, “Get someone else to toot your horn and the sound travels twice as far.” Actually, it’s been proven that even a subjective positive article has seven times the credibility than the four-color, full-page advertisement that took your company six months to develop, edit and fight for placement, and then paid for the space.
The difference: PR is cheaper; PR is quicker; PR is subtle; and PR is effective. In our industry, this distinction has terms: paid media (advertising placements) versus earned media (positive, objective stories).
Case Story #1: Building a Goodwill Bank
A highly respected group of car dealerships “enjoyed” a low profile. They sought a high profile for their paid advertising placements and clung to their desire for a low profile in the editorial side of the newspaper. This sold cars, but it didn’t engender public sympathy or empathy when the company faced a high-profile crisis of multiple employee thefts. After more than two dozen of their 800 employees were carted off by the FBI, you might expect customers and reporters to feel bad for the 50-year-old company. After all, it was the company itself that alerted the FBI about their concerns and then cooperated fully throughout the six-month investigative process. In doing so, one of the state’s most prolific ID fraud leaders was finally taken off the streets.
Instead, the company suffered accusations from impatient reporters who snarled, “There is no way this company didn’t know what was going on. The insurance company probably reimbursed them for the lost cars and they went whistling all the way to the bank.” There was no sympathy for this company that just got bamboozled by one of the most organized crime groups Florida has ever seen. Some scoffed at the very real notion that the dealership lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. Yet no one thought about the employees left behind to try and run that store the day after, and the day after that. The pallor was cast and it eventually closed.
I know, because I was brought in to help this unjustly maligned company; a company with strong ties throughout its community. Where was the benefit of the doubt? Why were folks so quick to assume the worst and immediately think about the money? A strategic PR plan was immediately implemented and now, years later, you would never guess who this company was.
Now, turn your thoughts to Publix. You would never expect a Publix employee to be rude, or for one of their stores to tolerate long lines at their cash registers. Customers know, expect and depend on them to respond to the long lines with opening more registers. They’ve earned customer respect, and for decades have not wavered from their repetitive strategic key message: “Publix, Where Shopping is a Pleasure.”
Remember when that plane crashed into their store in Volusia County? Did you once think about their insurance company reimbursing them for the lost food, or did you compassionately think about the poor customers and employees hurt in its destructive path? Did you think, “Wow, Publix could have prevented that?” Of course not. Publix, through its long years of positive, consistent communications – mindfully doing the right things with customers and vendors alike – earned the greatest goodwill bank of all: benefit of the doubt and caring empathy.
How did the car company climb its way back into public favor? Their website was immediately updated with photos, clippings and links to all of their charitable endeavors. After years of turning down interviews with the owners, a cover story was negotiated with one of the top editors in town. In gratitude for the unprecedented access, he wrote it himself. The company identified local heroes in town and celebrated one hero at every event they sponsored. They turned the spotlight from their products to the people they cherished as important members of the community. They emphasized customer service, customer courtesy, and customer respect.
Now they win nearly every category in local contests when the public votes for the best in customer service. Are they a different company than before? No. They are still the same caring, devoted, civic-minded folks they were before the story hit. The difference is that now people are reminded consistently that theirs is a company that values their community, employees and customers. That’s PR.
Case Story #2: Mutual Trust
One of my favorite stories about a situation gone amuck demonstrates what one disgruntled employee could do to a company’s reputation. This story shows that the goodwill bank and newsroom relationships can be a reputation lifesaver. Disguntled employees – especially the ones you least expect – have cost companies more angst and dollars than you can imagine.
A quiet employee was passed over for a promotion. This employee patiently bided her time waiting for the perfect opportunity to get even with the man who was now her supervisor. Everyone in her department carried pagers (which gives you an idea how long ago this was – but the story is still pertinent). Like forwarding a funny or inappropriate posting nowadays, people sometimes entertained themselves during slow periods by sending unique numbers to each other (think Dial-A-Prayer, the Bunny Ranch, etc.). When she heard that her new boss paged a fellow employee a phone number in Tennessee – to the KKK recruitment phone line – she reported it. This is where it gets interesting. Did she report it to HR? No. His supervisor? Again, no. Fellow employees? No. She called an investigative reporter at the local television station during TV sweeps.
Soon thereafter, the company’s division president was ambushed by a cameraman and reporter with microphone in hand as he exited his 1,000,000-sq.ft. warehouse. “Is it true that your company is running a white supremicist organization from your warehouse?” She showed him a pager log that the disgruntled secretary had secreted to her. He followed media protocol: he told her he didn’t know she was coming – did not remember seeing an appointment – and went back inside. Then he called me.
This same reporter and I had stood next to each other a few months prior on a corner in Maitland across from the Jewish Community Center. We watched in stunned silence as the colorfully garbed, excrutiatingly hate-filled men waved KKK signs and spoke against our neighbors of the Jewish faith. The reporter and I spoke quietly about the scene unfolding before us and thought about the safety risks. But we didn’t leave. It was mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. And now here we both were dealing with another hate story.
With the trust that only comes with a long-term relationship, the company president granted me full access to those involved and the company’s recent pager records. And, with the credibility built over years of relationships with that reporter and her newsroom, I proved that the number in question was sent exactly once – on the single page she received from her “source.” I reminded the reporter of our shared moment at the JCC. “Do you think I could represent any company that would tolerate that behavior?” She shelved the story but stayed in contact with her source “just in case.” Journalists are skeptical, but they are on the whole, fair.
Public relations, especially media relations and reputation protection management, requires mutual trust. It’s not an expense; it’s an investment. Engage a firm before you hit trouble. Have a firm on board who shares your culture, your ethics and the contacts you need to survive a communications disaster.