During the winter and summer holidays the PR department of a big pharma company sends employees a note about the company's views on issues that might arise during conversations with friends and family at social gatherings. With so many negative stories swirling around the health and pharmaceutical sector and 80% of people believing pharma puts profits ahead of people, sending employees home with talking points seems a good way to help manage the brand's narrative.
But what's the material the company sends home? Is it untruths or does it amplify facts and factual arguments that clearly express the company's point of view? Although we don't know exactly—we asked but the company refused to allow us to look at a packet—we'll assume it's the latter, a truthful explanation of how this company sees issues. Certainly it is intended to enhance the brand in the eyes of an influential group: employees' friends and relatives. In large part, reputation building and fact-based storytelling are what PR does, or should.
The Public's View
Unfortunately, plenty of people don't see PR this way, although that's hardly a surprise. The past few years have featured unflattering news about communicators. Recall former White House communicator Hope Hicks and her admission about white lies. (On the plus side, remember too PRSA chief Anthony D’Angelo's spirited rebuttal of a columnist who, to pile on in the wake of Hicks' departure, essentially called the PR profession compensated liars.)
Also recall the recent ouster of Netflix's chief communicator for using insensitive remarks. And it's still unclear exactly what happened during a media training session involving Papa John's Pizza International founder and former CEO/board chair John Schnatter. While we can't forgive racist comments in any setting, how did Schnatter's remarks find their way to the press and what role, if any, did the agency leading the session, Laundry Service, play?
More Bad Press
Adding to PR's ignominy are articles about communications firms that burnish reputations for seemingly unsavory clients such as Harvey Weinstein and ousted, corrupt S. African president Jacob Zuma.
Also gaining media coverage are PR firms that charge high fees to organizations with bad reputations, brand communicators who allegedly ignore press inquiries and contributors who submit thought-leader articles to publications without disclosing the brands they name in said articles are their clients. LPP's Melissa Zipin wrote about this last issue for us. In short, her thesis is such unethical behavior is not media relations, it's paid advertising.
Here's What We Do
In this atmosphere it's not unusual for ethical PR pros—who are in the vast majority—to feel uneasy about the way their profession is viewed by others. Typical is a story that PR pro/media relations guru Michael Smart tells. Recently Smart was on a flight to Washington, D.C., seated next to a "fascinating person," a PhD in engineering who's also a visiting professor at MIT, now on loan to the government.
During obligatory introductions, it was Smart's turn to tell her what he does for a living. "I'm a public relations consultant," he said.
Her response: “Public relations . . . and truth," she held up her hands as if they were two ends of an old-fashioned scale. “Can they go together?”
Michael's excellent answer, “Truth is the only public relations that endures.” She loved the answer.
The trouble is the incident made Smart lament that his response should be considered outstanding. Aren't all PR professionals truthful?
Smart believes he's somewhat blinded because he's "surrounded by a cocoon of so many ethical PR pros." As a result, he admits his blind spot is being overly optimistic about the reputation the field has among the public at large and organizational leaders.
"We need to consistently advocate for PR done the right way," Smart says.
The Long-Term View and Relationships
He's right. The push must be for an ethical brand of PR that takes a long view and establishes trusted relationships, not short-term wins.
The importance of ethics and trusted relationships are at the core of Zipin's short essay mentioned above. They also are integral to a column in PR News from veteran PR pro Pete Janhunen of 155 Strategies.
A chief executive Janhunen worked for was caught in a pickle and urged him to fib. Tell the media the information about me is untrue, the chief executive told Janhunen. Fortunately, Janhunen stepped up and told the chief executive he would not intentionally tell an untruth to the press. As Janhunen puts it, had I lied "we likely [would have survived] the day, and maybe our organization [would have escaped] the consequences temporarily, but ultimately we [would be trading] away our most precious resource—credibility."
Adds Smart, "If you find yourself mixed up with people who encourage you [to lie], then it’s time to make a change. Not only will subterfuge and manipulation eat away at your soul, it flat out doesn’t work in the long term."
With the scourge of fake news, lessons from PR pros like Smart, Janhunen and Zipin have never been more important.
Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him: @skarenstein