Until relatively recently, the PR department at a company I know always had a representative sit in on the webcasts it would occasionally conduct for customers. For the most part, the presence of a PR pro was a mere formality, so when the PR budget was cut, this webcast monitoring function was one of the activities that was seen as dispensable.
A few months later, one of the senior PR people got a weekend call at home. A major paper wanted a photo of one of the company's senior - but not ordinarily headline-making - execs. Puzzled, he tried to figure out why a reporter might be interested in this person. Eventually, he ran a search of his own company's website, and found the answer.
A few weeks prior, the executive had participated in a customer webcast.
In response to a question, she had suggested a course of action that - while perfectly legal - might seem opportunistic, even unethical, to an outsider. From the perspective of the executive in question, the remark likely seemed innocent. It was advice she'd given many clients in one-on-one settings. But now it was on the record at the company website, and if taken out of context, it could make the company look very bad.
The webcast was quickly erased from the site - but not quickly enough.
Someone used a video camera to capture webcast footage from his computer screen, and forwarded it to activists, who used it to try and embarrass the company. The story snowballed, and only some real professional issues management prevented a full-blown crisis.
The moral of this story is clear: the value of good PR counsel is not always measurable in coverage gained; sometimes coverage avoided is even more important.
A smart company provides its PR department with the resources it needs to monitor organizational output. (It also makes sure its people understand the importance of corporate reputation, and are cognizant of the ways in which their words and actions can damage that reputation.)
In this case, a savvy PR person present when the words were spoken would have spotted the potential for misunderstanding, and could either have offered a correction at the time or - at least - ensure they never became part of any official record.
It's not just a matter of budgeting, of course. It's also a matter of making PR central to decision-making, and taking PR advice as seriously as that of other counselors.
Looking at other recent lapses in corporate judgment, one can only hope that had a PR pro - one with the wisdom to spot a bad idea, the courage to draw it to management's attention, and the respect to influence management's thinking - been present when decisions were made, some of the more egregious lapses might have been averted.
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.