“PR” doesn’t stand for Problem Repair

Associated Press Television News photographer Rich Matthews went diving in the Gulf of Mexico to take a closer look. (AP Photo)

The public relations industry is taking a beating lately because of the BP Oil catastrophe since those in charge seem to think PR stands for “Problem Repair.”

Whether it’s customer service, product design, political popularity or a giant gash you cut in the bottom of the ocean, PR can’t fix the root cause of your troubles. Sure, public relations practitioners not adhering to the Code of Ethics can divert attention away from the situation, but they cannot do so indefinitely. At some point, the truth will be revealed, the problem will continue to grow, people will no longer be fooled and the ultimate answer — fixing the problem — will have to be addressed.

Ad Age recently interviewed “Leroy Stick,” the pseudonym of the creator behind @BPGlobalPR on Twitter. In the interview, Stick said:

I started this account because I think most people in PR are liars and most people in the media don’t have the balls to call them out on it. There’s a system set up where companies make press releases and the media regurgitates them. Personally, I’d love it if more journalists delved into why companies say what they say rather than simply presenting what they say.

I can’t help but think a little about the pot calling the kettle black, since “Leroy Stick” won’t reveal his true identity and is, therefore, also a liar. But I digress. The bigger problem is that BP executives and government officials all the way up to President Barack Obama are looking to public relations professionals to make this problem go away. There is only one way to the make the problem of oil flowing into the ocean go away: stop the gusher you created.

Talking about sealing the gash won’t close it. Pointing fingers at who might be responsible won’t let nature start its cleaning process. Demanding money or agreeing to pay it won’t bring back the livelihoods of people affected by oil slicks hitting beaches. Having a photo opportunity with the families of the oil workers killed in the explosion won’t bring those men back. And trying to change the subject to a political agenda pushing for more controls over greenhouse gas emissions won’t save the fish, the birds and the mammals being poisoned to death.

I’ve been involved in media relations and public relations as a journalist, a practitioner and a university instructor for more than 20 years. I’ve learned a few things along the way. One of the things I’ve had to teach to students, colleagues and bosses is that PR can help you explain difficult answers and it can help you repair your reputation after you’ve had to publicly offer a difficult answer. But PR is not the answer.

So if you have horrible customer service, pushing PR messages about how great your Twitter team is handling complaints about it won’t help in the long run.

If you have a dangerous product, pushing PR messages about how much you care about your customers won’t change the fact they are at risk.

If you’re responsible for opening a hole in the Earth that is spewing millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, pushing PR messages about how you’re going to make things right won’t stop the oil flow.

And if you’re the man elected to lead this nation in times of crisis, pushing PR messages about caring for the environment more than the other political party won’t change the fact that people disapprove of your leadership.

Sure, I’ve stood up and said I’m responsible for oil spills. But as a public relations professional, I’m here to tell you we don’t cause bad customer service, dangerous products, holes in the ocean floor or poor leadership decisions. So stop expecting us to be miracle workers. Fix your damn problem; then we can talk.

9 comments on ““PR” doesn’t stand for Problem Repair

  1. This a great post, Ari. I think we as PR practitioners also need to be more ready to stand up and point out the bad PR that’s going on, not just by corporations and the like, but by the actual PR people who are doing it. We have our code of ethics and that’s great, but until we actually do a better job of policing our own and calling out those who practice bad PR, we’ll never be able to even begin changing the perception that PR is all about lying and diversion.

    There are, of course, a lot of PR pros doing it right and they should be applauded. But there are also a lot of us who “bend” the rules to pay the mortgage and that makes us all look bad.

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    • Thanks for the comment Ryan. You are absolutely correct that is incumbent upon the PR profession to police itself. On the APR test, one of the questions asks who benefits more from ethical behavior, the PR practitioner or their client. The answer is the practitioner!

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  2. Ari, Good Morning,
    Spot on here, not sure how the marketing and PR firms across the land do what they do with so little to work with in most instances. I am not really referring so much to crises management, but more toward most businesses and their products are pretty boring.

    Remarkable isn’t just isn’t very typical, most folks are far too afraid, better to stay safe, and boring.

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    • Thanks Eric. It’s always been a struggle to make your client’s news relevant to the media that would report on it. That’s even tougher now that “the media” has really become millions of people waiting online for the latest and greatest thing, and expecting each latest and greatest to be that much greater than the last thing that kept them entertained!

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  3. Excellent writing, referencing and photo!
    I love how honest you are.
    The only thing I’m left wondering is if you disapprove of the President’s leadership.

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    • Hi Melinda — thanks for the nice comment.

      I do disapprove of the president’s leadership, but I worry that people might think I’m saying that for purely political reasons. As I note on my Facebook page, I’m neither anti-Republican or anti-Democrat, I’m anti-stupid. It seems to me that President Obama did not move quickly enough to take bold action that might have helped stop the leak sooner. Too much time and energy has been spent by everyone involved to try and place blame on someone else — anyone else. And it’s not just the President — why is Congress bothering to hold hearings right now? Why is anyone worried about finding out “whose ass to kick” as the President said, until the first part of this crisis is over? Unless Congress can find a way to stop the leak by holding a hearing, they need to shut up and get out of the way. There will be plenty of time for hearings, finger-pointing and soundbites on the news later.

      Right now, we need to get all hands on deck to solve this problem. Real leaders would understand the importance of dealing with the crisis at hand first and worrying about responsibility and repercussions later.

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