The PR School of Thought (And Strategy)

USA Today ran an article recently that focused on the Public Relations Society of America’s new pilot project that will be launched at five business schools. This project will teach MBA students how to manage crises and preserve corporate reputations. While teaching corporate communications is not new, this approach has quite a few updated elements along with some new areas. I haven’t seen more than this article, but I think it’s a great idea. The more business professionals understand the value of corporate reputation and the role of public relations, the better.

When the senior team of an organization or business has an understanding of public relations and its value, there is a different mindset and culture. In my experience, even during an issue or crisis, a senior executive who respects communication and understands that it is a strategic role has a better opportunity to manage the reputation of the organization – or at least, mitigate the damage. Those who don’t understand the value of PR seem to underestimate the value of consistent and regular communication with stakeholder groups. They seem to discount the power and reach of their community and this can create a great deal of damage to their organizational, professional and even personal reputations. Poor communication can hurt profits and growth – and that impacts the future.

There are many senior executives who see PR as “spin.” That is a battle that we, as communicators, often have to fight. I recently had a senior level professional refer to me in a meeting as “the spin doctor.” And he was serious. His perception is that what we do is to “massage” information so it is more palatable. I respectfully (and with humour) corrected him, explaining that we refer to ourselves as communicators and that if he was looking for “spin,” I was in the wrong room… But I am not sure that he really understands what we do and I don’t think he really cares to learn more about it – which is unfortunate. However, in this case, there are other individuals on the senior team who completely “get it” and are committed to increasing and improving internal and external communication at this organization.

One of the best quotes in the USA Today piece came from a public relations professor who said: “It’s not about sugar-coating and preserving happy images and smiling faces.” And I think that’s an important message to share regarding public relations. Often, we are involved in sharing the good news and the positive stories, but that is only one component of the role we play. If the organization is smart, there is a strategic communications professional at the senior table. And when there are issues such as layoffs, restructurings, a bad quarter or year, a lawsuit or any one of the dozens of other operational challenges that organizations face, the communications person is a key participant in the discussions.

When an organization faces a crisis, a smart CEO, president or chief administrator works closely with his/her communications advisor. And the role of the communicator, in my opinion, is to help make things right and to communicate so that the people involved or impacted are aware of what is being done, why, when and how. Not everything is the “fault” of an organization, but it remains important that there is leadership during a challenging time (no matter who is at fault) – that someone in a senior role assures stakeholders and communicates clearly about the situation, how it impacts them and what is being done.

There are times when things go wrong. When someone (or many people) at the organization makes a mistake and there are serious consequences, the leadership team has to step up and explain what happened, how it happened, what is being done to make it right and what is being done so it will never happen again. Reputation management isn’t just about making sure the organization’s image appears intact during an issue or a crisis. It’s about doing the right thing and sharing that information consistently so the organization maintains a good reputation. Most people will support an organization that steps up, that is accountable and responsible, and that apologizes and explains what they are doing to make things right. It’s when they try to downplay their role, hide their mistake, “spin” their part in it or refuse to be accountable for their actions that things can go sideways fast.

I think the more business students know about public relations and the strategic role it plays, the better companies will respond to stakeholder and community expectations and to issues and crises. What do you think?

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