Is PR stonewalling itself?

Has corporate PR turned into the art of stonewalling?

Has corporate PR turned into the art of stonewalling?

A veritable army of corporate communications professionals would mount a spirited defense to such a suggestion.

But there's a more troubling issue. That question is derived from a statement made by Sathnam Sanghera, a journalist with the Financial Times.

He claims that "too much corporate PR" exists in modern business, and it's "too aggressive, and too much of it involves saying no." He claims that corporate PR has become "the art of stonewalling."

But perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is, "Are we, as corporate PR operatives, placing ourselves in an invidious situation - a corporate no-man's land?"

When a CEO or C-suite exec orders his or her communications staff to parrot, "No comment," and refuses, at the same time, to meet the media in person, are we failing in our duty as counsel to show the likely effect? (That would be media frustration and impatience.)

Are we laying career landmines for ourselves by stonewalling? The net effect is a dissatisfied journalist, and management or your client sees its reputation under fire and out of control. Either way, you lose.

I know one CEO who instructed his board to avoid the media during a labor relations dispute. A mid-level PR officer was delegated the sole media contact. Was the CEO interested in unambiguous communications clarity? No. He was more concerned about protecting his executive team members from litigation. With insufficient briefing to enable him to place in context the media's challenging questions, the PR officer had little option but to stonewall.

Sanghera goes on to claim: "Journalists are set up to have a low view of PRs: They stand in the way of us getting information... Even the man I called to test my keyboard for germs arrived with a spin doctor."

It may be too easy to dismiss Sanghera as another disaffected and naive reporter. Beware.

The media might argue that PR is its own worst enemy when it comes to exercising its own integrity. In a textbook example of stonewalling, a leading automotive trade weekly, in chasing a bankruptcy story, reported that "three messages left by this reporter at xyz company's PR agency were not returned." Not helpful.

How would you feel in that predicament? Is the media's commentary and subsequent despair understandable?

An audience with media provides a rare opportunity to put an issue in open perspective and collect the public trust quota that goes with it. Don't waste this chance. It's senior communicators' jobs to persuade management to trust their judgment. There's no easy way to win that confidence.

Integrity, acumen, and an acute commercial awareness in dealing with the C-suite will help you earn your ticket. Only then will you have earned the illustrious seat at the table the PR industry craves. And you will have demonstrated your value to your employer and the media - who, almost certainly, will have an impact on your career.

Jeffrey Fisher
Corporate reputation counsel
Portland, OR

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