The PR industry was once again the subject of mainstream media analysis this past Sunday when The New York Times published a 5,100-word article titled “In Case of Emergency: What Not to Do.” The subtitle was "PR Missteps Fueled Fiascos at BP, Toyota and Goldman".
Certainly this is not the first time The Times has tried to tackle the intricacies of the PR industry. In 2005, it published an “expose” about the "devious" VNR, a tool that of course had been used by the PR industry for nearly 50 years at that point. That article spawned a series of events, which led to FCC warnings, reluctance by clients to use VNRs and SMTs, and ultimately the demise of Medialink, once the behemoth of the broadcast PR industry, and its eventual sale to The NewsMarket, now Synaptic Digital.
Sunday's article, while good in that it gave some of the industry's leaders the opportunity to voice their opinion regarding crisis communications, particularly as it related to the three aforementioned cases, it once again showed that mainstream business media simply does not understand PR. Certainly it cannot be expected to have the expertise that PRWeek and other trade magazines do, but the article seemed to suggest that the “PR missteps” were what led to the problems at BP, Toyota, and Goldman Sachs, and this is simply a naive way of thinking.
In each of these cases, the true problem was caused by a fundamental business—or safety—issue. Ask any crisis communications or reputation management expert and they will tell you BP could not even think about working on its reputation until it stopped the oil leak. Was it wrong to use Tony Hayward as its primary spokesperson and while not properly media training him? Probably. But even the most carefully crafted message delivered from the best communicator in the world could not have competed with the images of the constant flow of oil into the ocean and its affect on wildlife. The same is true with both Toyota and Goldman Sachs. In the case of the latter, the financial industry as a whole has struggled with its image for a long time and until it changes its business practices it likely will continue, despite the best PR counsel.
This is the second time this month that The Times in particular has gotten something so wrong about PR. In its coverage of HP's dismissal of CEO Mark Hurd, it stated that APCO Worldwide, which counseled HP's board, was not a firm with “a particularly strong reputation for crisis management.” In this case, a simple Google search would have revealed APCO's work and thought leadership on the subject.
The PR industry has come out in full force against this article; The Arthur W. Page Society's website this week featured a blog post by IBM SVP Jon Iwata and has also submitted a Letter to the Editor on the topic, along with other industry professionals. That's a good first step, but once again the onus is on the industry to help educate the media on how exactly it works. Certainly the majority of interaction PR professionals have with journalists is on the part of their clients, but every now and then it wouldn't hurt to do a little PR for itself as well.