Crisis expert: “PR needs to grow up”
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Crisis expert: “PR needs to grow up”

A leading global crisis comms specialist has said that the PR industry needs to “grow up” if it wishes to be taken seriously amid the current spate of corporate crises.

Paul Holmes

By Arun Sudhaman

GLOBAL: Richard Levick, CEO and president of US firm Levick Strategic Communications, made the remark while discussing BP’s comms response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A spoof Twitter account called @BPGlobalPR has since amassed more than 120,000 followers, and has penned columns poking fun at the PR industry. In the Guardian last week, for example, the anonymous Twitterer, who goes by the pseudonym ‘Leroy Stick’, offered a seven-step ‘crash course in PR’.

The article includes advice such as “acknowledge the problem without acknowledging specifics”, and “threaten legal action if anyone crosses the line.”

Levick said that PR industry needed to “grow up and understand that it is now going to be part of the story.”

“PR has always wanted a seat at the table and now it’s got a seat at the table,” he added. Levick has handled high-profile crises for such clients as Mitsubishi and Southwest Airlines.

Neither Levick nor Bell Pottinger director of issues and crisis management Alex Woolfall, however, thought that the spoof Twitter account would significantly impact the reputation of the PR industry. “The public often think PRs are one step up from estate agents: untrustworthy spinners who get paid to massage the truth,” said Woolfall.

Similarly, Woolfall felt that @BPGlobalPR would not affect the public’s view of BP’s efforts to clean up the oil spill. “BP will ultimately be judged on what they do and what others say about their efforts and commitment to clean up the spill: not on what an anonymous Twitterer says.”

Levick, meanwhile, noted that BP could have been quicker with its social media response. “They could have been quicker with their website, with their own pictures of their engineers, and they could have been more active on their Twitter account.”

However, both Levick and Woolfall felt that BP had handled its crisis comms well, given the magnitude of the current situation. “You can certainly have a criticism of certain tactical issues,” said Levick. “But, by and large, one has to remember, this is a crisis of historic proportions. There’s got to be a villain in every tragedy – who’s going to play the villain here? BP is the most likely villain.”

Criticism of BP has also extended to its recent hire of former Dick Cheney press aide: Anne Kolton, former head of public affairs at the US Department of Energy. “They are going to get criticised for everything now,” said Levick. “Quite frankly, hiring someone of that level makes a lot of sense.”

BP’s woes are the latest in a series of issues that have rocked major organisations this year, such as Toyota, Facebook, the Catholic Church and British Airways. In all cases, said the two experts, the online world’s ability to amplify events and accelerate the pace at which they unfold had profoundly changed the traditional conventions of crisis comms.

“What has changed is that everyone who has an opinion can voice it in the online world,” said Woolfall. “Maybe what’s changed is there was actually some clear water in the past, whereas now there is ongoing commentary from the moment something happens.”

“It is the age of transparency,” added Levick.”Everything you do and say is recorded and visited. CEOs need to understand you have to run to the crisis.”

The fact that the two biggest crises have befallen foreign companies in the US, added Levick, should not be overlooked. “To a certain extent, xenophobia always plays a role,” he said. “If Toyota had been an American company, would it have been criticised to the same level?”

Neither observer, though, felt that recent events had demonstrated a noticeable trend towards a poorer comms response. “Quite often, companies have responded poorly,” said Woolfall. “There’s no such thing as a perfect crisis. There will never be one where people say this is textbook perfect. And it’s less likely now where there is a running commentary on everything you do.”

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Crisis Management
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