News Analysis: When a 'PR crisis' is not a PR crisis

Why is it that the PR industry always gets it in the neck when things go wrong? The author of recently published Talespin: PR Disasters investigates. When it was claimed that David Beckham had exchanged naughty text messages with Rebecca Loos, it was dubbed a 'PR disaster'. Even the breakdown of talks aimed at resolving the Middle East conflict has been editorially labelled a PR disaster.

In fact, after I added too much salt when cooking risotto for friends the other night, that was, in its own small way, a PR disaster: my reputation as a convivial host lay in shreds.

If you believe everything that you read, watch and hear in the media, a PR disaster is anything that causes embarrassing or negative publicity for any given organisation or entity. And I'm sick of it - sick of PR getting it in the neck. More than that, though, I'm really cheesed off that the profession I've studied, practised then studied and practised again over the past 20 years is becoming almost synonymous with the word 'disaster' - and no one in our industry seems ready to combat these ongoing and damaging slurs against our reputation.

Media interpretation

Are we all too scared to stand up for our profession for fear of offending a journo or an editor or the title they work for? Or are we just becoming the invisible people, the chartered accountants of the media sector?

When you analyse the modern phenomenon of PR gaffes, you see evidence of a much wider malaise than inept and unscrupulous PR practice.

Sure, there are numerous examples of less-than-pukka PR people, but the question of ethics within business and media environments leaps out as an equally significant issue.

For example, when building supplies giant James Hardie treaclefoots around the issue of worker compensation for asbestos-related illness, managerial ethics and corporate accountability should be the focus of the debate.

Yet for many newsdesks, it's easier to write the whole thing off as a major PR embarrassment or gaffe.

It's useful to look at the definition of a PR crisis provided by the Institute for Crisis Management: 'A significant business disruption that stimulates extensive media coverage.' Herein lies a key truth about PR disasters: they're really caused by the media.

And I don't mean that PR disasters are caused by journalists. Wait a minute... many are: Patricia Smith at The Boston Globe, Jayson Blair at The New York Times - not forgetting ex-journos' links to PR nightmares, such as 'Svengate' (see box).

But the real point here is that a PR issue or crisis can only become a PR disaster as a result of the media's interpretation of any situation or circumstances. Or, in other words, after the media add their own 'spin' to the story.

Just as the media look to meet their own agenda - by carrying the negative, derisory or threatening stories and features that titillate audiences - their interest in what they dub 'PR disasters' will continue, despite the fact that the media erroneously label many situations as PR disasters when they clearly never were. Don't believe me? I challenge you to prove how Beckham's alleged dalliances adversely affected his reputation rather than galvanised his credentials as a 'sports playboy'. It was no more a PR disaster for Becks than it was for Hugh Grant after he hooked up with Divine Brown.

While the media serve as a very useful watchdog against illegal or shonky PR practices (probably better than any PR membership association), many practitioners are becoming more aware of the best ways to counsel their clients in handling - if not avoiding - PR disasters. First, they're ready to accept that a PR disaster can break out at any time, even from unexpected sources, so the motto de rigeur is 'be prepared'.

Scenario-planning is a must - brainstorm potential outcomes of your planned PR activity; develop and maintain shareholder dialogue - a strong network of allies can help you combat or recover from negative coverage; make PR shape policy at board level - alert management to the possible negative outcomes of corporate moves; ensure crisis management plans are developed, rehearsed and tested - responding quickly and appropriately can help contain the PR disaster; be prepared to 'get real' and stop attempts at 'spinning' - being candid and human is essential to gaining respect and possibly even empathy.

This advice aside, it's always possible that life will throw your company a 'curly one' - a PR disaster from left of field. If it does, manage the situation ethically, with good grace, humility or humour - at least that's a good foundation on which to rebuild any damage done by real or alleged PR disasters.

Talespin: PR Disasters is now published in hardback by Kogan Page

TALESPIN'S REAL PR DISASTERS

- 1990: John Gummer's BSE stunt Government minister feeds beefburger to his young daughter in attempt to placate consumers during BSE scare

- 1991: Gerald Ratner Jewellery magnate reduces eponymous empire to shards with one careless quip about 'crap' products

- 1994: British Airways Hostile anti-Virgin campaign exposes PR's role in widely documented smear effort

- Mid-1990s: McLibel McDonald's decision to sue two 'pauper' activists dubbed 'the world's greatest corporate PR disaster' after widespread media coverage around the world

- 2001: Starbucks Coffee retailer charges 9/11 rescue workers for water

- 2001: Jo Moore scandal Government consultant Jo Moore suggests 9/11 is 'a good day to bury bad news'

- 2001: 'Sheikgate' Sophie Wessex quits R-JH Public Relations after tabloid sting

- 2002: Vodafone Australia Telecoms firm sponsors streakers at rugby game

- 2003: Pepsi/Coke toxins scare Drinks reported to contain dangerous levels of toxins in India

- 2004: 'Svengate' PR-initiated attempts to 'buy' media silence backfires.

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