Recently, I was talking to someone who’s about to start his own business. He needed legal advice and decided to get it from a friend who’s also an attorney. It didn’t matter to him that the attorney mostly deals with intellectual property matters, and my friend’s needs centered on start-up issues and contracts. A lawyer’s a lawyer, right?
Wrong. Most people understand this, but it can be tempting to look for free advice from a friend because the price is right.
This would-be entrepreneur trusted his friend, and his friend gave him the best advice possible. But I recommended that the new business owner seek out – and pay for – advice from someone who has extensive experience with start-ups and related contracts. Thankfully, he took my advice, and even though it will cost him some money, he’s already got more peace of mind, trusting that he’s got someone in his corner who’s already been there.
PR is a Field of Many Specialties
In another case, I will broaden this discussion to the PR field. Over the years, I’ve been involved with a number of professional trade organization activities where public relations veterans make up all of the leadership positions. These are individuals who’ve made careers centered on marketing communications, public affairs, events planning, social media, and digital communications, respectively.
Since most have at least a decade or two experience, you would think that such senior-level experience would give everyone a more holistic view of the public relations field and the communications process. Oddly, and surprisingly to me, that’s not been the case.
When some of these committees and organizations ran into some sticky situations, quite a few of these senior-level PR practitioners made a mess of things because they simply didn’t have the right experience dealing with sensitive issues.
Apples and Oranges
You can’t put a social media planner, even a veteran one, in charge of certain ethics policy matters, not because they are not ethical, but because they may not have the right experience addressing ethical issues through leadership communications. They may have a working knowledge of the issues at play, but too frequently, they have not even given much thought or study to these sorts of things. As a result, they can make things worse.
You can’t put a recipe PR person in charge of a project where crisis management skills are required, no matter how many years of experience they have. If they haven’t explicitly handled crises, they are beginners once again.
On the flip side, you wouldn’t want to put someone like me in charge of an annual awards banquet. While I do have a working knowledge of big party planning, it’s never been my forté, and you’d do better to look elsewhere.
They Don’t Know What They Don’t Know
The trouble is, far too many PR veterans think they can manage crises, sensitive situations, and other leadership communications and they are simply ill-prepared.
As I have said repeatedly in other posts and articles, “They don’t know what they don’t know.”
But it’s even more than that. I was once asked to help with an initiative, which I did, but I was never specifically told by the leaders of that initiative that they had planned to add me to a three-year term to one of the organization’s task forces. They knew what they were doing.
They knew if I saw it as a three-year commitment, I might not agree to help. So, they opted for expedience and chose not come right out and tell me up front this was a three-year commitment. So, when the project ended and only then I saw my name listed on a task force I never agreed to join with a three-year term, I was taken aback. When I confronted the ‘leaders’ I was told in so many words, I should have read their prior emails more carefully and put two-and-two together.
When I went back, I could see how carefully worded their emails were to me, which if you parse the words gave them the latitude to add my name to the task force without explicitly getting my permission. Would I ever trust these individuals again? No.
But more than that, I started to regret my contributions to the project because I could better see with hindsight how that work was going to be used for organizational political purposes.
My only real mistake was trusting people who didn’t deserve it, and not seeing how certain ethical lapses for some aren’t even seen as ethical matters to them.
The point is, not only are some specialists wrong for the job based on lack of specific and relevant experience, but more often than we care to admit, some veteran PR people who haven’t had to deal with crises, issues and leadership communications, do not have a full appreciation for where the ethical lines and boundaries are. What’s no big deal to them should be a big deal, and they just don’t realize it.
For this reason, if you have a pressing communications problem, don’t turn to the closest PR veteran you know and assume you’re going to get good, responsible and ethical advice. Go to someone who’s been there.
If you want to talk about this, I’d be happy to help. Just get in touch.