Danny Rogers: How PR executives become the story

At the time of writing, Toyota's crisis was already escalating into one of the worst - and most analysed - in corporate history, and would be better reviewed in full retrospect.

Danny Rogers
Danny Rogers

However, one element of this crisis is indicative of a wider trend - the increasing numbers of PR practitioners taking the spotlight themselves.

Most of us will have heard from Toyota's UK comms chief Scott Brownlee during the past week. Armed with his faulty accelerator pedal, he was grilled on the Today programme, interviewed on TV sofas and widely quoted by name in print.

Indeed, we saw more of Brownlee than we did of his senior managers. Other recent examples include the Football Association, where PROs David Davies and then Adrian Bevington were more visible than their bosses, and holiday firm Thomson, which puts up comms director Christian Cull for its inevitable BBC Watchdog grillings.

Some commentators see this trend as the 'Campbell-isation' of comms over the past decade: the attitude by corporates that if it was good enough for Prime Minister Blair to let comms director Alastair Campbell take the flak, then it is good enough for them. It is partly driven by fear. Chief executives are wary of aggressive media and the detail now required in the heat of the battle. Indeed, their lawyers may be advising against commenting.

It is also a testament to better-qualified and better-prepared PR professionals, who are now well capable of handling such pressure.

There is, however, some doubt over whether this benefits the image of PR, or simply reinforces a stereotype, particularly in a crisis.

There is certainly doubt about whether it enhances the reputation of organisations themselves.

From the origins of PR in the 1950s, encapsulated in such texts as the Hidden Persuaders, the received wisdom is that comms people should craft the message, not deliver it. And while, even today, there are times for the chief executive to take a back seat, ultimately the media and the public expect the power behind the organisation to show his or her face, and to take full responsibility.

This leads to the question of whether CEOs are suitably qualified, experienced and prepared? In Toyota's case, there is a major question mark. This leads us full circle to the evolving role of the comms professional. Today, this practitioner must be both adviser and lieutenant, but also a force for greater professionalism and rigour.

BSME Editor of the Year 2008

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