As the CEO of a PR agency I’ve heard a variation of “we have PR problems” a lot. And when someone calls to tell me that somebody or some company needs Double Forte’s help because they “have a PR problem,” I take a deep breath and hoist the big red flag at my desk.
Eventually I get to the question, “what business problem is the cause of this PR problem?” If the answer is “we don’t have any business problems, the media is out to get us,” or “there isn’t one, we have a terrible PR agency/person/freelancer,” I know we should run, not walk, away. (Note, PR Problems and Crisis Communications are not the same thing, more here.)
Why? Because PR problems, like “fake news,” don’t exist. As “fake news” are actually lies, PR “problems” are business problems surfaced by people whose experiences or expectations have not matched the promise of the story companies have been telling. Witness Uber, WeWork’s failed IPO, Theranos… I could go on.
People with “PR problems” don’t want to solve the business problems that will eventually make their public perception improve. People with “PR problems” want a shiny song and dance that will distract the audience from the truth. There’s a lot of money in that business. We’re not interested.
PR is not the problem if business operations aren’t aligned with the public profile you seek
Not All PR Is Equal
That is not to say that everyone who provides PR services or fills those PR roles in companies is doing the work well. On the contrary, many agencies and people do not do the PR work well. (As a side note, I find it a bit depressing when the agency takes over an account in this situation, as we need to work even harder to earn the trust required to do our work, and every verified bad experience with a PR firm hurts us all.)
However PR executed poorly is not the same as a “PR problem.” We can fix PR executed poorly by doing it well and consistently for a period of time. (Yes, it takes a long time.When someone finds the magic wand I can wave to instantly fix poorly executed PR, I will purchase it, gild it in gold and wave it over my head with abandon.) Fixing poorly implemented PR programs takes effort and time – a heavy lift and constant application. It just does.
At the same time even well-executed PR obfuscating facts cannot save an underlying business or operations problem forever. In today’s world, the truth comes out faster than ever before, and the truth in the hands of people who care about it will prevail. Witness Uber, Facebook, Theranos, WeWork…I could go on.
In the discussion about “PR Problems,” the first goal is to discern whether it’s a poorly executed PR or a business problem, or both.
Is it a Bad PR or Bad Business
For instance, we helped a company that had a barrage of terrible customer reviews for a great product. Once we looked under the hood, ordered the products ourselves, did some digging, and we discovered sophisticated bots and unverified accounts were making those 1 star reviews, and we were able to address that in a systematic way. On a positive note, Amazon and Yelp have gone a long way in helping curtail unverified reviews, although much more work needs to be done.
Another company called for our help with the same issue. We ordered the products, looked under the hood, and did some digging, and in our opinion the company deserved every single bad review it had received. The product was terrible and literally fell apart in our hands. We shared this back with the company with a recommendation for operation fixes and a long-range communications plan to support those fixes. At first the potential client was offended – they just needed “some good PR, and fast.” We declined the assignment. They called back over a year later, and we were able to help them get on the right track, because they were willing and able to acknowledge and address their operational issues.
Obfuscation and Disinformation
In our current political climate, the ability to recognize misinformation, diversionary statements and outright lies is an important topic for our collective community. And of course FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) campaigns are constant in every industry. I put to you that they are also exhausting, expensive, and often, in the world of Twitter and 24/7 news cycles, counter productive. While everyone needs a strong defense, those based on strong facts are stronger than those based on contorted impressions.
So if your media coverage and your customer reviews are terrible, if your employees are exiting faster than you can replenish them, or if your partners aren’t partnering with you, these are not PR Problems, they are business problems. And the best course of action is to fix the business problems AND build an effective communications engine at the same time, so that when you’re ready to match the experience with the story, you can turn negative sentiment into positive advocacy.
In fact PR is part of the solution.