Make Sure Your PR Counsel Knows Its Loyalties

For as long as I can remember, one of the challenges as a communications counselor to clients has been a general mistrust some managers and a few lawyers have had when it comes to discretion and the potential for news media leaks of proprietary information.

More to the point, I’ve seen instances where managers and attorneys tend to hold on to vital information until that last possible moments before public disclosure because they fear that if they provide that information to the communications function too soon it will find its way into the news media before its time.

I used to dismiss this attitude out of hand as overly cautious and counter-productive. The fact is, the sooner the communications function can get up to speed and involved in the planning of any number of disclosures the better. Both client and legal staffers can benefit from senior-level communications counsel, and communicators can benefit from the input and insights only legal counsel can provide.

I’ve been involved in a wide range of crisis and issues management situations from the very earliest stages and have seen how well this can work when it’s done right.

Not So Fast

But I’ve now had enough experience and seen a few situations where the concerns I cited up top cannot be so easily dismissed.

In my communications work over decades, I’ve noticed that a few public relations professionals, including a few seasoned veterans, may have had misplaced loyalties. Some may have felt a stronger affinity to the journalists who covered their organizations or clients than to the organizations or clients themselves. This is a problem.

It’s sometimes how improper leaks can happen before a deal is done, a claim is filed, a settlement is reached. It’s how word can get out about a bankruptcy filing too soon, or management’s planned offer in a labor dispute.

I used to think that the blame on some PR people was misplaced. It would be like going to a murder-mystery party and assuming “the butler did it.” It’s too obvious.

Why would a communicator, who has the most convenient access to the media, take such a chance, since they would be the first suspect in the chain of information to the media? But it has happened, and it will happen if you don’t have the right people in place.

Confused Loyalties

I once had a vigorous debate with a seasoned PR pro when he told me, “If you work in public relations, reporters are your first priority, even before your own staff members.”

I’ll save you the 10-minute monologue I responded with. To sum it up, I told him he was nuts.

And some PR people wonder why they’re kept out of the loop until the last possible moment, or only brought in late in the planning process.

You see this dynamic these days when veteran communicators join the movement against what they describe as “misinformation” or “disinformation,” presumably unaware that they are pawns in a campaign to silence anyone who may have a differing opinion from an accepted narrative.

All too often, when we are involved in controversial issues or situations, our critics and opponents will likely paint anything we have to say as “misinformation” in an effort to justify censorship from social platforms or even the government. How could any public relations professional in his or her right mind, enlist in such a movement? Yet it’s happening with increasing frequency.

Communicators Need to Follow Existing Ethical Standards and Practice

Public relations pros are starting to forget their professional loyalties and priorities. Generally, they are forgetting the critical purpose they serve as advocates for opinions on all sides of an issue in public debate. Situationally, some are forgetting their explicit loyalties and obligations to the organizations they serve.

They are taking their lead from the news media and others, and they are doing a disservice to their organizations and clients.

Long-standing, ethical practice of public relations must still apply.  Never acknowledge, confirm or deny anything without the support of top decision-makers, including legal counsel.  Communicate nothing of a sensitive nature independently.  Understand that everything is on the record when you’re talking to a journalist, and that as a communicator, you do not have the right to violate the confidence of another.

If the choice is between alienating a reporter, or an employer or a client, the choice has to be to look after the best interest of the employer or the client every time.

Yes, we sometimes negotiate embargoes or exclusives with some journalists, but we should never enter into any of these arrangements without consulting our decision-making teams in advance, and in compliance with any rules and regulations that govern disclosure.

In the end, communications professionals have to recognize that they have a vested interest to be ethical and professional when serving as advocates for the organizations they represent. And leaders and clients need to be able to trust that the communicators they work with are dedicated to the highest levels of professionalism.

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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: timobrien@timobrienpr.com or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.

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