PAUL HOLMES: PR's role should be to help everyone see how their decisions impact corporate reputation

A letter to the editor of PRWeek recently suggested that I got "carried away" when I asked where the PR pros at Ford Motor Company were when the company was discussing the design specs of its Bronco - design specs that contributed to a massive punitive-damages award against Ford. The letter raised some legitimate questions. "We've already been told we should be counseling the lawyers, financial officers, HR staffs, sales reps, and, of course, everybody in marketing...now it's time to oversee operations and productions too." It does sound like a challenge. It is, as the headline of the letter indicated, an ambitious vision for the role of PR. But is it too ambitious? I hope not, because it is only by playing this central role in the operations of a corporation that PR can make a real contribution to corporate success. The most obvious point is that it's hard to imagine the company's chief legal officer voicing a similar complaint. "I already have to counsel the CEO, CFO, chief HR officer, and the marketing department, and now you want me to make sure our products are all legal too?" If your job is to insulate a company against lawsuits, you have to insulate it against all lawsuits. If your job is to protect a company's reputation, you have to protect it from all reputational threats. Of course, there are practical obstacles to doing this well. PR departments are rarely as well funded as legal departments, and reputational threats are rarely as well understood as legal threats. There may not be much you can do about the former problem, but addressing the latter is one of the most important roles for a corporate communications professional. Much is made of counseling the CEO and senior management. But an equally important challenge is making sure that everyone in the company understands the importance of reputation, and the way in which their decisions contribute to - or detract from - the company's image. Just as you won't make a profit if the only person who understands profit is the CFO, you won't have a good reputation if the only people thinking about reputation are in the PR department. It's your job to make sure everyone in the company is thinking about the reputational impact of their decisions all the time. The best way to do that is to communicate the organizational values clearly and often, so that good decision making becomes almost automatic. If getting PR involved in decision making at all levels of the organization sounds costly and time-consuming, consider this: How much less time and money would Ford have spent on the Bronco problem if PR people had been involved up front, rather than after the excrement hit the fan?
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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