Down in Front: When Should PR Professionals Have a Public Face?

When White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer serves as the official mouthpiece for the Bush Administration, it is understood that this is a unique case in the field: a press relations officer acting as a public buffer between media and a chief executive, as a recognizable face for his "company." After all, bringing down Hussein, hunting Bin Laden, and clearing brush on the Texas ranch keeps the President fairly busy. Outside of the White House press room, however, as many large corporations suffer from the ongoing crisis of confidence, executives may be tempted to throw that PR exec in front of the curtain and have her take the offensive with the press - or just take the heat. If they haven't already, many PR pros soon may have to ask whether and in what instances it is acceptable for the communications executive or PR agency to serve as the public spokesperson for a company. Not surprisingly, most professionals we surveyed say almost never: communications executives should make a policy of staying outside the limelight, whether they're internal employees or agency staffers. "We never serve as spokespeople for our clients," says Bill Carlson, COO, Tucker/Hall, Inc., a PR consultancy. "Reporters want to hear from the client, not from us." Indeed, while using PR staff as public buffers may seem like a good idea during a moment of corporate crisis, it is more likely to backfire in increased suspicion on the part of the public and the press. "The journalistic community is not wanting for smart people," warns Lee Duffey, president, Duffey Communications. "If they suspect a trick, it only incentivizes them to go further." Bad news and expertise must come from the top in order to maintain corporate credibility, says Ken Capps, VP of public affairs, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, who has advised his share of airport executives in the post-9/11 crisis environment. "I advise EVPs and CEOs to take the lead as subject matter experts," he says. "When an apology has to be made or a decision announced about employees - good or bad - that should come straight from the top." And if your CEO still wants to duck and hide, you might remind him that there could be legal ramifications. "The director of corporate communications ultimately is not responsible for the performance of the company," says Peter Prodromou, SVP public relations, Trinity Communications, Inc. "He or she is not directly accountable to the board and stockholder. You never want to be in a position where your communications executive is publicly interpreting situations and parsing phrases." In fact, many say that times like these require that the responsible executives be the one and only public face of a company in order to restore a sense of trust in corporate leadership. More Than Just a Pretty Face Which is not to say that PR executives do not or should not be spokespeople. In a crisis situation, there are times when a press buffer is the better of two evils. In cases where litigation is involved, a top line executive might only get himself and others in trouble by speaking out. When in highly defensive postures, a CEO may likely draw more criticism no matter what he says, in which case speaking through internal PR might limit the damage, says Rachel Peter, VP, G.S. Schwartz & Co. In some cases, maintaining the flow of information to the press supercedes the importance of having executive spokespeople. "If the executive is behind closed doors trying to solve whatever crisis we're having, out team will take the lead with the media to assure timely, accurate information until the executives can meet with the press," says Capps. But whenever a communications person steps in for an executive, it is important to gauge what the media are reading into it. More than just speaking for the company, it is the PR pro's job to monitor how both the message and the messenger are being received. "If there is confusion or suspicion on the part of the reporter, then the PR person has to get at the heart of that suspicion," says Duffey. PR professionals typically put on an agreeable attitude when dealing with the press, but sometimes being blunt is necessary to bring out a journalist's agenda on a story. Duffey recommends asking suspicious reporters directly what it is they are looking for. "If there's an issue, it's up to the PR person to get it on the table immediately. Otherwise, it will forever cloud the way a journalist views the company," he says. There are also ways in which a corporate culture can help make the communications executive a more credible and informed spokesperson by bringing him into the loop. One vestigial lesson from the 1990s heyday of tech start-ups may be that many marketing executives were among the first hires at these companies and were integral to devising the business plan. Among the press, they had inordinate credibility as company spokespeople and quotable sources, because it was understood that these executives had a seat at the senior management table. In addition to considering whether fronting for a company is good for the corporate image, PR executives should consider the professional ramifications of doing so. Outside agencies run the risk of being too closely identified with one company or industry, especially those with high profiles. Most of all, a growing tendency to rely on the communications executives to front for a company suggests a deeper systemic problem. "If a PR person is being used as a buffer," says Duffey, "then the PR person has to ask herself, 'How long am I going to have a job in this company?'" Talking through with top executives all of the good reasons why such a practice is a poor long-term strategy is, again, one of the thankless tasks of the communications officer. Otherwise, PR pros risk losing their credibility with the press and even within their own organization. "So many PR people don't understand the idea of the scapegoat," says Duffey. Things Your C-Levels Should Know Ironically, many upper-level executives are fairly introverted types who would just as soon have you face the press. Here are some talking points for getting them out from behind the curtain. Upper-level execs are the ones legally responsible to shareholders and the only ones who should be addressing corporate financials. The absence of executives almost always breeds suspicion among reporters and invites them to investigate further. Business magazines, cable networks, etc., promise their audiences peer-to-peer, executive-to-executive access and expect C-level spokespeople. We can script you. The PR staff can and should prepare opening statements, op-ed pieces, and mock press conferences to support the executive. PR staffs should be vetting reporters carefully to determine their angles before meeting with the key executives. (Contacts: Ken Capps, 972/574-8080; Lee Duffey, 404/266-2600; Bill Carlson, 813/228-0652; Kelly Hayes-Raitt, 310/581-4421, Peter Prodromou, 617/292-7300)

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