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, April 28, 2006

PR Problems That Require Substance, Not Spin: When leaders describe something as “just a public relations problem” what they typically mean is something along the lines of Strother Martin’s “what we have here is a failure to communicate” bit from Cool Hand Luke: there’s nothing substantially wrong; it’s just that we’re not getting our message across.

That’s an argument that is now being trotted out by defenders of the Bush administration, who seem to believe that replacing Scott McClellan with Tony Snow will reverse the course of American fortunes in Iraq, lower the price of oil, and eradicate our rising national debt. It was also Ken Lay’s defense in the Enron trial. The media was part of “a very real conspiracy” and The Wall Street Journal was engaged in “a witch hunt.” If the media had not pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, he would still be on the throne.

There should be nothing surprising about this. When institutions are attacked—by the media, or activists, or others—and negative publicity ensues, the first reaction of leaders is to dismiss it as “just a public relations problem.” The PR people are called in to “spin” the story.

But I suspect that “public relations problems” of this nature are much less common than organizational leaders would have you believe. In fact, I’d venture to say that most “public relations problems” are the result of stakeholders understanding the organization too well, rather than not well enough.

As Peter Sandman explains in a recent article: “Like most other businesses, [the media] have more investment opportunities than investment capital—that is, there are more juicy targets than staff to go after them. So, like most other business people, journalists and activists look to allocate their effort where it will yield the greatest profit, the best return on investment. They pick the low-hanging fruit. They mine where the vein is richest.

“Think about that. With all that’s going on in the world that has the capacity to arouse public outrage, they chose you! You were the lowest-hanging fruit. You were the richest ore body. Kinda makes you think you must be doing something wrong….”

Certainly, the problems at Enron and the difficulties now faced by the Bush administration arose because what was once obscure gradually became clear—not the other way around.

That doesn’t mean the challenges these institutions face are not still “public relations problems,” but they are public relations problems in the true sense of the term—problems in the relationship between the institution and its stakeholders. And as I suspect most of us know deep down, most relationship problems can’t be spun away, most disagreements cannot be solved simply because one party presents his or her case more effectively.

These are public relations problems that require solutions of substance not spin. Of policy, not presentation.

And they require public relations people who understand that improved communication is not a synonym for good public relations, merely one possible result of it.

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