All News Is Not Good News
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Holmes Report
News and insights from the global PR industry

All News Is Not Good News

As people guiding corporate reputations, the PR industry has done a poor job as far as its own reputation is concerned.

Holmes Report

The PR industry is seeing a new trend in the past few months– the regularity with which people behind the news are dominating headlines. In India, a PR agency named Vaishnavi hogged prime television, newspaper, internet space in India for weeks. Recently, we saw Burson Marsteller doing an encore across the world.

Unfortunately, it has been for all the wrong reasons. Every crisis throws up lessons and opportunities. What are some of the lessons to learn from these recent situations?

Every company today worth its salt has its set of values and code of conduct. I am sure all respectable PR agencies do. The question is how many PR agencies go the extra mile to ensure that all its employees live its values. Is it just a code that lie behind the firewalls of the intranet or as a sleekly designed book? Or does the company regularly see to it that values are continually refreshed in its people’s minds.

The second question about values is about how serious the agency’s leadership is committed to its values and code. Are they prepared to sacrifice a client or refuse business, because it conflicts with their code of conduct? Would they be prepared to walk the straight and the narrow even when presented with an ambiguous ethical situation?

As professionals who guide reputation of organisations and talk about the highest standards of corporate governance, how many agencies today live up to the highest standards? How many PR agencies today have an ombudsperson? How many consultancies have a whistleblower policy or a high degree of disclosure and transparency norms? Are we willing to spend time, money and effort in ensuring that we live by the same ideals that we preach?

As people guiding corporate reputations, the PR industry has done a poor job as far as its own reputation is concerned. The advertising industry has done much better. The advertising agencies have produced more celebrated campaigns, more “gurus” and “legends”, more books and more movies than PR agencies have.

Sometimes it has invaded the PR turf as well – look at the number of advertising and marketing agencies who enter and win the PR awards at Cannes. It is time for the PR industry to pull up its socks and prove that it is capable of making news that celebrates its successes and not its failures.

One of Burson Marsteller’s biggest triumphs has been the handling of the Tylenol situation in 1982. It is a case study that all of us see as the platinum standard. Transparency and swiftness in dealing with the situation were the two key factors that stood out. I am sure Burson Marsteller will come out stronger from this crisis.

The key difference in the situation between 1982 and 2011 is that today the world is measured in nanoseconds and 140 characters. If the Tylenol incident had happened in 2011, the situation would have been far different. In today’s world, one would need to negotiate through a swiftly created maze that has repercussions across the globe. It is this world that we as responsible public relations professionals learn to negotiate and master. And not forget to create good news for ourselves.

Senjam Raj Sekhar is Head – Group Corporate Communications for Bharti Enterprises. The views expressed in this article are personal.

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