Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Friday, February 10, 2006

When Hiring a PR Firm Generates Bad PR: Students of storytelling inform us that there are only a finite number of stories in the world and that those of us who work with words are merely re-telling them with minor variations. I was reminded of the truth of that notion when I came across this hoary old chestnut—troubled organization slammed for plan to hire PR agency—in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The “news” in brief is that Lake Worth City Council has been under fire over rising electricity costs and land use issues. It wanted to hire a New York PR firm for $63,000 to “improve the city’s image in the community.” Residents objected. Said one: “You’re bringing someone in to fan away the stench of what’s been created in Lake Worth.” Added a City Councilwoman: “There’s a problem, but I don’t think the media is the problem. They only print what we say and how we act. The problem is us.”

I’m reminded of an interview I had with a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this year about the West Virginia mine owner’s decision to bring in Dix & Eaton after the fatal collapse and failed rescue operation (the resulting story is here). At one point, he questioned why the company needed a PR advisor if all it planned to do was tell the truth.

I made the point—the Plain Dealer apparently considered it challenging enough to highlight as its “Provocative Quote of the Week” in an internal newsletter—that PR firms were often brought in to manage the media not because an organization was seeking to “spin” the facts (or “fan away the stench”) but because “Journalism is not always a truth-seeking exercise. Sometimes it's a headline-seeking exercise.”

If you’re accused of a crime you didn’t commit, you don’t eschew the services of an attorney just because you plan to tell the truth. Similarly, if you’re accused in the court of public opinion, you can’t assume that openness and honesty are enough to win the day. There are always people out there who are interested in making you look bad, and sometimes they have the media on their side.

But the main point is that good PR firms don’t “fan away the stench,” they look for the source of the stench and try to eliminate or reduce it. They also listen to what those who complain about the stench are saying, assess their expectations, and relay those expectations to their clients. They understand that the best way of making a client look good is to help it do good.

Sadly, the image of our profession is such that in stories like this one the underlying assumption is that the very decision to hire a PR firm is indicative of a desire to deceive, manipulate and spin.

(By the way, does anyone know where the phrase “hoary old chestnut” comes from and more to the point why it is used to describe a journalistic cliché or stale old joke?)

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