“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.