Paul Holmes 13 Nov 2011 // 8:49PM GMT
I didn’t make it to PR Week’s NeXT Conference last week—I was on my way back from our first Asia-Pacific SABRE Awards dinner in Singapore—so I am dependent on third-party reports like this one on the keynote presentation by Gil Schwartz, head of corporate communications at CBS and also Fortune magazine’s Stanley Bing. Schwartz apparently cited recent controversies such as “Bank of America’s ill-conceived $5 debit card surcharge, NetFlix’s fatal decision to intro then kill Quikster, BP’s Tony Hayward’s thoughtless sound bites, and Herman Cain’s alleged personal transgressions,” before going on to reassure the audience that “these aren’t ‘PR problems' but “behavioral, decision-making or operational problems, which PR often can help to resolve.” I don’t get the sense that there was much pushback against this definition of what is and isn’t a public relations problem, but I have to ask, if “Bank of America’s ill-conceived $5 debit card surcharge” is not all about the company’s relationship with its public (in this case, its customers) then what is it about? In fact, all of the instances cited by Schwartz go the heart of the relationship between the organization and its various stakeholders. They are problems precisely because they damaged those relationships. They are entirely and unequivocally public relations problems. If corporate public relations people have one critical responsibility, it is surely to help companies avoid problems of this kind, by pointing out the likely impact of these “behavioral, decision-making or operational” decisions on trust and credibility, on reputation and relationships. In the Bank of America, the surcharge decision became a crisis precisely, it seems to me, because the company thought through the financial and legal and operational aspects of its decision, and either ignored or miscalculated the impact of the decision on stakeholder relations. That makes it a public relations problem in the purest sense of the term. I suspect that what Schwartz means is that these are not communications problems. And since Schwartz’s role at CBS is defined as communications rather than public relations, it is perhaps understandable that he is focused primarily on the communications aspects of public relations. But we shouldn’t let him get away with conflating the two things.