With PR Advisors Like These Who Needs Enemies?

If your organization is faced with the real possibility that it could be involved in a crisis centered on a controversial issue or development, the one thing you should be able to do is trust that your PR advisors are on your side.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some organizations to seek and receive counsel from PR advisors who may not quite have the best interests of the organization in mind. To be clear, we’re not talking about spies or subversive activities. We’re not talking about PR professionals who would intentionally do you harm. We’re not advocating a surrender of professional objectivity and detachment in favor of accepting only the client’s side of the story. And we’re not focused on PR professionals who are pushing the boundaries of PR ethics.

What we are talking about are those whose hearts simply may not be where yours may be – PR advisors who may be happy to get paid to provide PR service to you all within the bounds of ethics, but their sentiments may align a little more closely with your critics. When this happens, you’re likely to get and take advice from someone who has already accepted the premise of your critics’ attacks. Their inherent bias clouds their ability to provide the counsel you need. So much so that your critics’ reality is your PR advisor’s reality. That’s dangerous.

Here are a few hypothetical examples.

Apologize First, Ask Questions Later

A large consulting organization serving a large NGO is under fire by an extreme environmental activist group for having once worked for energy companies. The consulting firm made no secret of this. It listed energy companies as clients on its web site and had complied with all disclosure requirements. However, the critics treated the consulting firm as though by virtue of having worked for energy companies in the past it had done something wrong.

The consulting firm’s PR advisor counseled the firm to first issue an apology for having worked for those firms and to announce that it would be conducting an internal review of its client list to assure it would be more diligent about taking on “controversial” clients in the future.

Takeaways: There’s nothing wrong with consulting firms serving energy firms, so there is no need to apologize. There is no need for an internal review of client lists unless a specific business arrangement or contract warrants it. More importantly, it will undermine your own business if you start to publicly classify clients as “controversial.” This is a reflection that the PR advisor is working under a reality framed by critics. The lesson is, if your organization has done nothing wrong, there is no need to apologize. If your organization has to conduct an internal review to determine if it did something wrong, say so, but wait until the investigation is complete before even considering an apology and corrective action.

Give Your Critics a Forum

A real estate developer has announced it plans to build a new mixed-use development on the outskirts of a mid-sized city. As part of this process, it is compelled to meet with elected officials and local authorities, and appear at public meetings where the development is on the agenda. A group has formed to oppose the development and is waging a campaign based on fabricated claims in the media, on social media, and in public demonstrations.

The opposition organization has built its campaign around allegations that the developer is trying to hide its plans and is not being transparent. The developer’s PR advisor recommends to the company that it host a town meeting to foster dialogue with the community to be more transparent.

Takeaways: First, the PR advisor is coming from a place where it is presumed the developer has not been transparent. While there are appropriate times for town meeting forums, there are many times when a PR advisor recommends hosting a town meeting when all it will achieve is to give your critics a forum for their own agenda-driven campaigns. When you host a town meeting in a contentious situation you are giving your critics a forum to create a made-for-TV event that may give the misleading impression that what you are proposing does not have public support, or ironically, that you are trying to hide something – all because an organized and vocal opposition knows how to hijack such forums for their own purposes. A better approach in this situation, may be to communicate broadly and aggressively through your own channels: Web sites, newsletters, mailers, op-eds and ads, and when it comes to public meetings, consider them, but there are ways to structure them so that your critics cannot commandeer them to shut down real dialogue.

Appease Your Way to Failure

A bank is forced to reduce its philanthropic activity due to a downturn in its business. This means that certain local arts-related organizations will see significant reductions in funding. The bank is now under fire from certain community activists who say the “greedy” bank is putting profit before culture and is working to “destroy the local arts community.” With picketers outside of the bank’s offices, the bank’s PR advisor tells management to engage with the group by having an impromptu face-to-face meeting with the group’s leaders, hoping that they will understand the bank is not putting profits before the arts.

Takeaways: There is a place for engagement, but there are times when what looks like engagement is not. This is one of those times. In this situation, the messaging coming from the bank’s critics is highly strategic, designed play to stereotypes of big business. This signals that the creators of that messaging have no desire for real dialogue which can lead to real understanding. Rather, any event or activity in which they do engage is designed to further amplify that messaging. So, if the bank would take the PR advisor’s recommendations, it would be doing two things. First, it would be giving the community activists an event it can play to further reinforce its theme that that the bank is not “listening to us” or “trying to manipulate us.” Second, if the bank has made a firm decision on its philanthropic support of the arts, such a gesture as an impromptu meeting with this group (handled the wrong way) could give false hope. A strategy of appeasement only lasts so long, then critics are likely to feel misled, and their vocal attacks on the organization will then be proportionately stronger and longer.

You Have a Right to Expect Your PR Advisor to be with You in Heart & Mind

The main problem with these kinds of PR advisors is they’re not really sure who they work for. Some live to please the media before their own organizations or clients, and their advice reflects this.

Others see the issues your organization faces through the prism of your critics and not yours. They identify more with your critics than they do with you.

Of course we must do research on all sides of the issue. We can’t accept information on face value from clients any more than we should if the information or claims come from critics. That said, when PR advisors start by accepting the premise of the critics, they’re more likely to accept false assumptions and baseless allegations, and on this they will base their recommendations. This is quicksand for any communications program.

The Most Embarrassingly Common Problem We Find When We Do Employee Research

Workplace Communications, PittsburghOver the years when we’ve handled workplace communications issues, we have done research. Sometimes it’s been qualitative.   Think employee focus groups.  Other times it’s been quantitative. Think employee surveys.

When we do employee research, the purpose for each project may change but one thing almost never does. There is usually a credibility and trust gap between hourly or line employees and their immediate supervisors or front-line managers.

The workplace could be a manufacturing plant or it could be an office. Regardless, when front-line managers speak to their people, they are all too often not believed or trusted.

Why?

While every workplace has its own communications issues and characteristics, generally speaking, front-line managers can get caught in the middle. They don’t have the power or authority to make policy decisions, but still they are charged with enforcing them.  This means they can’t make spot changes based on the direct feedback they may get from subordinates.

This can be frustrating for line employees.

Further compounding the issue is how front-line managers are assigned and judged. Many front-line managers are promoted from within. This means some may still feel and act like line employees, neglecting their management responsibilities.  While others may allow a taste of power to change the way they interact with their subordinates.  This can lead to or exacerbate an “us” versus “them” mentality within the workforce.

Whether they are really effective as front-line managers or not, most know that some of their managers don’t want problems bubbling up in the organization. So, the course of action for many front-line managers is to keep things quiet.

Front-line managers tend to have a choice. They can manage so as not to get on the wrong side of their superiors, or they can manage to make themselves look good to their bosses. Either way, this often means that grievances, complaints or even suggestions and good ideas can come to a halt when originating at the very front lines of the organization.

Usually, once we detect a pattern like this, we set about creating an internal communications program that helps to bridge the divide between senior management and the entire organization. One important thing is to do is find ways to bolster the credibility of those front-line managers.  After all, they are the voice and face of the company to your line employees.

Some ways to do this are:

  • Empower front-line managers to make more policy decisions within their work groups.
  • Encourage and incentivize them to share complaints, suggestions and ideas that they receive from their people upward in the organization, and recognize those contributions.
  • Respect the valuable role front-line managers play as both managers of their people and as advocates for their people.

In the end, you will be helping to forge a stronger bond between front-line managers and the people they manage.

Let us know if you would like to talk about workplace communications.

CEOs: Get Political at Your Own Risk

Note Taking at EventA recent article in the Los Angeles Times featured the results of a Weber Shandwick study on the impact CEOs may have on their companies’ performance when they take public positions on political or controversial issues. The headline didn’t say it all, but it was pretty accurate: “CEOs are getting more political, but consumers aren’t buying it.”

Before getting into detail on the article and the study, it’s worth noting that no matter what a CEO does in terms of communication, there has to be a good business reason for doing it. Otherwise, the entire proposition is based on ego and not the principles of good business. It is also important to know that “doing the right thing” is never mutually exclusive from doing business the right way.

When an organization meshes social responsibility with other business initiatives, we call it corporate social responsibility. When marketing is driven by the same motivations, we sometimes call it cause-marketing.  But when a CEO builds a communications program around his or her own positions on issues, it can get personal and now emerges as “CEO activism.”

The Weber Shandwick Takeaways

Here’s what Weber Shandwick found:

  • 36% of consumers polled said they felt media attention was the primary reason some CEOs take public positions on political or social issues. According to the LA Times piece, the three most recognized CEOs who do this were Starbucks’s Howard Schultz, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff.
  • 21% of those surveyed felt CEOs took public stands to build their own reputations.
  • 14% of the people questioned thought CEOs actually took public positions did so to “do what is right for society.”
  • 40% of survey participants said they were more inclined to buy something from a company if they agreed with the CEO’s views.
  • 45% of those questioned responded that they are less likely to make purchases from CEOs if they disagree with the sentiments.

The Weber Shandwick study polled 1,027 adults.

Lessons for Other CEOs and Companies

The questions a CEO of any company needs to ask when considering taking a public position on a political or controversial issue are:

  • What is the risk to sales?
  • What is the risk to existing and potential customer relationships?
  • Will not weighing in on the issue cost my business?
  • Is my position on the issue in sync with those of my customers, clients and other important stakeholders?
  • Do I and my organization have credibility on the issue? Or, put more bluntly, is this any of my business?
  • What do I have to gain?
  • What do I have to lose?
  • And perhaps, most importantly, is my position really the only way to go, or is it just one side of an issue … just my opinion?

The last question gets to the core of it. Controversies and political issues by nature can be polarizing. When a CEO takes a strong position on an issue, it can be assumed to alienate up to half or more of a company’s employees, customers, vendors and other stakeholders.

How Should a CEO Use the “Bully Pulpit?”

Then there is the issue of the “bully pulpit.” This goes beyond simply trying to appeal to employees or risk alienating them.  President Theodore Roosevelt used the term to describe how he used his position of power as president to push his agenda.

Power comes in three parts: compensatory, conditioning, and condign. A CEO has all three at his disposal.  He can incentivize and reward those who agree with him through compensation.  He can condition those who work for him through a range of persuasive techniques. And he can punish those who disagree with him.  Employees at every level know this.

So the ultimate question becomes: Is advocating a particular position on an issue a wise use of a CEO’s leadership capital?

The question is inherently situation-specific, but there is no doubt that once a CEO does decide to venture into CEO activist waters, there is risk, and all too often there is no turning back.

If you have a specific question on this or would like to discuss, please feel free to get in touch.