As the economy gets management to think with increasing urgency about how to cut costs, PR executives realize management can't cut much from fixed costs but can reduce PR staffs and budgets by 50%, 75% or more.
While some in PR respond to this by writing resumes, PR superstars are doing themselves even more good by writing programs that use the news--recession realities--to help management:
1. Increase sales to a public that is eager to cope and hungry for budget-stretching ideas.
2. Win from Congress and the Administration enthusiastic approval for much of management's wish list of government actions.
3. Protect the company by deterring activist fault-finders--and by winning for the company widespread public gratitude, sometimes worldwide.
When management sees from the proposed PR program how PR can help attain these management objectives, PR is more likely to be seen not as a cost to be cut but as an asset that can enhance the bottom line and help protect management's hide.
The media are hungry for "how to save' stories that help consumers and build circulation, and some of the best PR teams are stepping up to the plate. EXXON-MOBIL got millions in circulation with a release to 10,000 newspapers via NAPS on tips including the reality the Mobil I motor oil may increase your "fuel-economy and protect your engine." A NAPA AUTO PARTS release shows how the chain's air filters, locking gas caps and other parts can add to economy and safety, as does PRESTONE for its fuel system cleaner.
Do you know where you can go? It can have a big impact on how much you spend so the BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS does a "Stretching Your Vacation Dollar" release, building web site traffic and sales, and with what-to-see-and-do information pointing out that the islands accept the U.S. dollar so you can "dodge conversion rates."
SHERATON releases ideas to give readers a sunny disposition in sunny Italy thanks to 20% discounts in Rome, Florence, Venice and other sites for sore eyes.
Even big-ticket items--sometimes very big and even life-changing--are being sold successfully via PR as in a "Medical Tourism Takes Flight" release from STARHOSPITALS that boasts "accredited hospitals in India, Thailand, and Singapore," plus fees said to range from 50% to 80% less than in the U.S. Pick-up has been in hundreds of newspapers especially in retirement areas.
Double-duty releases are increasingly used by PR superstars. An AMERICAN MEAT INSTITUTE release offers tips "to help consumers enjoy delicious and nutritious meat on a budget." This release does double duty by showing millions of voters and their legislators, concerned about food prices, that "corn to feed livestock and poultry is being made into ethanol to fuel cars," which "means high fuel prices which in turn mean high food prices."
Releases on travel, homemaking and health get an especially heavy clipping volume from dailies and weeklies in the wealthy suburbs.
The Exxon-Mobil release also does double duty by winning for the oil company protective goodwill from millions of readers for providing the much-needed advice. If your company has an expert who can tell consumers how to save, you can earn quite a bit of public gratitude by turning the information into releases for the 10,000 newspapers, 6,500 radio stations, 1,000 TV stations and a huge number of web sites that are increasingly hungry for releases that help the public cope with the grim economic realities.
Sometimes you can protect sales with PR that hold market share against "bargains" that are no bargain at all. PROGRESSIVE INSURANCE has an "Uncovering Auto Insurance Myths" release that blows the whistle on half truths and untruths that blows the whistle on half truths and untruths that could hurt both consumers and Progressive if allowed to spread.
The COAL INDUSTRY protects market share with a release of helpful information explaining why "despite the hype, coal remains the U.S.'s ace in the hole for affordable electricity."
We should neither try to re-invent the wheel nor try to save by using remanufactured wheels according to FORD and other carmakers because this could cause "steering, suspension, axle" or other trouble causing injury to people (and lawsuits against car companies). Even a brief warning like this presented to a few million people via a NAPS release to thousands of media can save quite a few lives--and save market share for Ford's factory-made parts.
Winning in Washington
Ask not why the government can't do more for you but use the media to rally public support for government action your management would love to see.
Doing good in the world does not guarantee doing well in Washington so CATHOLIC HEALTH ASSOCIATION does releases showing an inflation-plagued America a "Value-Based Vision of Health Care Reform." Sister Carol Keehan, CHA president, offers people of all faith tips on "how to play a role " in "creating the health care system we deserve."
AARP is headed by former Porter-Novelli chief Bill Novelli, who like WPP's Martin Sorrell, is small in height but a giant in talent. You can imagine the huge media response Novelli gets by sending 10,000 newspapers a release headed: "Without Congressional Action, Rising Medicare Premiums Threaten Health, Economic Security of Older Americans." The media love this because older people--an increasingly important part of newspaper readership (and newspapers know this)--care very much. The readers want the information because most older people are on fixed incomes and will gladly write to their legislators with fierce enthusiasm.
Both Catholic Health Association and AARP extend the effectiveness of their releases by including such web site addresses as: www.chausa.org.
Yet another site, www.ntca.org is included in such releases as "Speaking Up To Keep Phone Costs Down" from NATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS COOPERATIVE ASSOCIATION.
You may be able to save your company or industry from all kinds of grief if you warn the public away from mistakes that could hurt the public and bring the blame down on you. "Avoiding Medication Errors" is a story of tips from AMERICAN SOCIETY OF HEALTH-SYSTEM PHARMACISTS. Some execs in your management may right now feel "it's the public's own damn fault" if people misuse the product and then suffer. But if some of the misusers will blame you (and perhaps sue you), preventive PR now may save you from hurtful litigation and perhaps legislation later.
One kind of protective PR can protect the public from believing falsely (or at least management thinks it's false) that you are guilty. "Higher Corn Demand Has Little Impact At Grocery Stores," says the NATIONAL CORN GROWERS ASSOCIATION--contradicting the Meat Institute and others--and you can see the persuasive power of "facts vs. fears" from this quote by NCGA president Ron Littereer: Even if corn rises from $4 to $6 per bushel (which would be a huge increase) "that only means a per pound price of about 11 cents."
Often a less-well-known reality can both deter unduly restrictive regulation and also engender Washington support for your industry as energy prices drive voters and legislators to think about what we can do. "Nuclear Power Means Clean Air," says a nuclear industry release reminding a fearful public how more nuclear energy can protect our health as well as our energy costs.
Protect the Company and Industry
Watch your assets! The public does that gladly even without being asked. So with jobs, home values and stock prices down while foreclosures ad prices for consumer products are up, the public is fiercely protective of those who protect the public.
Even our government is often blamed when in truth it is doing a lot of good, so it can help the public importantly, and also help government agencies, to increase public awareness of the truth. Is any government agency more feared and disliked than INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE? Wisely, IRS reduces fears and helps taxpayers by supplying facts as in a release headed "Extension Fling and Late-Season Tax Tips."
We might think that one who gives money away--billions--would need little PR. But many people don't know what government benefits and services they're entitled to free, so Medicare, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES does releases like "Need Relief On Your Prescription Drug Costs?" People are told about benefits that millions never knew are available.
With good reason, since one in every three of us is likely to die of cancer, the health-conscious public pays close attention to a release, "New Hope On The Horizon In The Fight Against Cancer." Instead of blaming drug companies, millions of people who read the release from PHARMACEUTICAL RESEARCH AND MANUFACTURERS OF AMERICA feel a protective gratitude toward America's drug industry. You can win that kind of gratitude toward your company, association or country--without increasing your corporate donation budget but by re-allocating some funds--by backing news-making anti-cancer doctors like Dr. Fernando Cabanillas of the Centro de Cancer at San Juan Puerto Rico's Auxilio Mutuo hospital, and Dr. Carol Portlock of New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
What can be done when a cancer treatment isn't working? Plenty--and recent medical journal articles by Dr. Cabanillas counsel doctors what they can do to save the patient, and how to prevent trouble by not using too much of an excellent drug. Dr. Portlock can sometimes forecast when a frightening lump in the abdomen requires no surgery at all but will "spontaneously resolve" (go away by itself), and she recently co-authored a famous-among-doctors article on "R-CHOP-14," an effective new combination of five drugs that succeeds repeatedly even against a feared "aggressive" form of cancer. When you help doctors like these, you can sometimes get worldwide media coverage two or more times a year--each time your doctor writes a medical journal article on an important new advance that is newsworthy.
PR can create public gratitude that's extremely protective because the public tends to oppose strongly, even fiercely, the government or anyone else harming a benefactor company that is fighting cancer or some other big health peril.
All of us have sinned, so it should not come as a shock when a company, industry or country is accused of something--even if the accusation proves partly or entirely true. But also true is this: as the recession increases public alarm--and the public's inclination to ask "who's to blame"--the safest and most appreciated companies and PR executives are those known to the public and to management as benefactors. Even in these tough times, we can help our managements to survive and thrive. Yes we can.
Don't Lose the Blame Game
As some in Washington think about a bailout while others wonder whether their managements will need money for bail, many of the world's best PR minds are looking ahead to the public's threatening question: "Who's to BLAME for all this trouble?"
Some days it may look as if you can't win.
YOUR PRICES. If you charge a minimum as Walmart and Target do, some people will blame you for driving out of business mom-and-pop stores that must charge more. But if you charge enough to post a substantial profit, fault-finders will blame you for charging "more than necessary" when many people can't afford to pay so much.
YOUR EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION. Pay top dollar and you'll be faulted for paying so much while "workers" (implying that top management people don't work) receive much less. But if you pay less and are managed by less skilled executives who demand less compensation, the beef may be that your profit-and-loss picture is much worse than others in your field.
TAXES AND THE LAW. If your senior people don't deduct taxes from cleaning ladies and even babysitters who are paid over $400 a year, get ready for a charge of not just taxes due but crime! It may be that 10% to 20% of Americans, including our President, have experimented with drugs, which means 30 million to 60 million Americans, but if one of your people has done so it may be pointed to as crime.
PRODUCT SAFETY. Common sense is that it may be impossible to eliminate 100% of all human error and all chance of an unsafe product being shipped. Yet journalists may one day demand to know from you WHY a mistake was made, since a politician has proclaimed such a mistake to be "totally unacceptable." (Don't try answering that it's NOT totally unacceptable, but that it's fiercely unacceptable to your management which is doing six things to avoid such trouble ever again.)
Fortunately, although some days it may look as if you can't win, in truth you CAN win. You can protect your company from undue blame. You can, in fact, protect your management so well that your people emerge intact from a national blame frenzy. You can see that other managements in the same field--less skillfully protected by PR--go down in flames so badly that even their own children ask them with disbelief whether what's in the papers and on TV "is really true"--and why.
Program for Success
The time for PR preparation is now, and these seven sets of ideas are from especially popular reports in PRQ over the years.
1. Prepare for the coming accusation. The savvy PR strategist can often advise management now on what accusations are likely, and how to either head them off, or ar least take a minimum hit.
2. Avoid three common PR defense blunders which I'll outline below.
3. Forecast to your management now what accusations are likely so management can prepare.
4. Make your investigation findings "work product" so the facts you uncover are less likely to be splashed in headlines and on TV.
5. Give SOME accurate answer even before you know the WHOLE answer. (Lawyers often order "say nothing" but there are things they'll clear in advance for you to say.)
6. Present your management in perspective. What the public sees when looking at your management may depend in part on what your PR teaches the public to look for.
7. Empower your Washington reps to do lucrative lobbying.
Public's Top Priority
Fundamental PR principle: "Rare is the love, so urgent and enduring, as love the public feels for itself."
Knowing this enables you to give your management look-ahead PR guidance on what will happen. What for other managements may be an "unexpected crisis" can for your people be much less of a surprise once you point out these PR realities:
1. We are going to be accused as all organizations are--and perhaps with much greater intensity than in the past--of shameful and unlawful unfairness to the public. Almost no organization is forever spared so the question is not so much "whether" as "when".
2. Accusations that will get the most media coverage are likely to be that we are endangering the public, making too much money on the public, or otherwise being unfair to the public as through discrimination in hiring, promotion or discharge.
3. The perils to us may be much more serious than just annoyance and embarrassment at being accused: the perils may include criminal accusations against management, civil charges seeking millions or hundreds of millions in damages and penalties from us for consumers, employees, investors, or those who breathe the air we are said to pollute; and unduly restrictive regulation that cripples or seriously injures our ability to run our business and compete.
4. Judging the accusations against us will be not a jury of our peers, nor a jury from our plant towns, but the general public which will decide--based largely on media reports--whether or not we sound guilty.
5. We'll get no presumption of innocence. The public's presumption usually is that if someone is accused, there's probably a good reason. Just as you and I assume if we see a handcuffed man led away by the police that the guy must have done something wrong, so does the public. Often the public forms an opinion about guilt or innocence without even waiting to hear what the accused has to say. (Fortunately, we can tell an important part of our positive story even before we are accused and in a way that makes accusation less likely and less believable.)
6. Even if the public were willing and had time to listen to the accused's side, a denial is almost never as newsworthy as an accusation. So the charge against a company or industry may get massive newspaper space and TV time while the denial--or the "we can't comment until we've at least had time to read the charge"--may get very little coverage and even less credibility.
7. So the trouble is COMING, the CONSEQUENCES may be terrible, and the reality is that those who accuse us may seem to have more public credibility than those who defend us.
What We Can Do Now
The ideal is to head off trouble by looking at the three common accusations--endangering the public, making too much on the public and discrimination or other unfairness--so as to avoid not only impropriety but even a credible appearance of impropriety.
We are blessed with a choice of opportunities.
Skillfully preparing for the coming accusation is like preparing for financial hardship which we hope won't come. Just as money in the bank helps us cope successfully with financial hardship until we can get things stabilized, a goodwill "bank account" will protect your organization against the possibly savage PR consequences of having activists say you're terrible while no one knows much about the good things you've done.
Even medical and pharmaceutical organizations that are a blessing to the world, build up protective goodwill among scores of millions by going to the public with "what to watch out for" releases that get acres of space and hours of time from the media.
AMERICAN SOCIETY OF PERIODONTOLOGY helps the public protect their oral health by recognizing early signs of trouble so people with a problem know to see their dentists promptly.
NOVARTIS OPHTHALMICS promotes the survival of vision with a feature that begins: "the leading cause of blindness for people over 50 is age-related macular degeneration, yet seven out of ten Americans are unaware of the condition." Next comes the incidence--13 million cases of AMD in the United States--plus facts on risk factors and emphasis that "the key is early detection."
Even outside the health field, health preservation tips make releases that are good for the PR teams and even better for the public. FODOR, the publisher of travel guides for all over America and the world, surveyed what health problems travelers fear most, then issued releases on how to detect early the problems and possible remedies.
The research your organization is doing can bring you call kinds of public goodwil even before the research produces findings that help the public.
GERMANY knew that a coming TV mini-series could awaken extremely negative public feelings about Germany, and a team of five brilliant German communicators (including three who speak perfect English with a strong British accent) sent one release after another on medical research in Germany--what researchers were doing to help beat heart disease, cancer, diabetes, blindness, memory loss and other ills.
The media gave massive space and time to the releases distributed to 10,000 newspapers, 1,000 TV stations and 6,500 radio stations plus thousands of online news sites via NAPS, producing scores of millions in circulation and broadcast audience.
The media love medical research stories that make people glad they read the newspaper or tuned into the broadcast that day.
You can see right away the PR effect: the public is disinclined to feel negatively about people working to protect our survival.
The TECHNION-ISRAEL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY announced research that "could have important implications for breast cancer treatment." AMERICAN ACADEMY OF OPTHALMOLOGY reports factually yet joyously that cataract surgery today is not only faster and more effective than in the past but also--because some patients may be reluctant to go although they need the work--"more comfortable."
Many great corporate PR teams do releases on their help for research and progress. DUPONT is helping to limit greenhouse gas emissions. BAYER has a science and community service program "searching for young inventors, investigators and innovators." A cynic could decry the great PR teams as self-seekers. But many great communicators, like great doctors, are insulated against critics by proud awareness of this reality: public information, like skilled medical care, is promoting human survival!
Avoid Three Blunders
A key part of your PR defense technology should be to avoid three common PR defense blunders.
Blunder A: Routinely taking or returning journalist calls before you know the facts.
It may seem perfectly safe, if you've been told by the lawyers not to comment until the comment is cleared, to tell a journalist, "I don't know the facts but I'll get back to you as soon as I can." Yet this headline may result: "Spokesman Doesn't Deny Charge of Fraud." The lead can say, "Claiming that "I don't know the facts," a highly placed spokes-mans admitted being unable to deny that ..."
Blunder B: Promptly "admitting everything."
An admission of guilt can bring on a suit for millions or even hundreds of millions.
An admission of guilt may be well intended but wrong, as when a stunned driver following an auto accident admits guilt but was in truth not guilty, but the victim of a faulty car or the other driver or a signal light that didn't work or something else.
An admission of guilt may lead an alarmed public to cry out in fear for "protective" government action and vengeance, but you reduce the steam level once you can report as part of your statement how management is already taking three measures to further protect the public.
The call for "remedial" or punitive government regulation is much less likely to be adopted or even made if the public knows that the problem is already being addressed.
Blunder C: Presuming that the media want to be fair.
Just as top athletes fiercely want to win, doctors want to save a patient's life and most people want a mate, the reporter wants a good story--and since guilt is often a better story than innocence, the journalist may not deep down be unbiased in perceiving and reporting evidence.
The normal and understandable temptation of a journalist is to notice and report those facts that make a good story.
Forecast the Accusations
Surprisingly to some, this is not at all as difficult as it may sound. Almost always the charge will be that (a) you're endangering the public as by pollution or product safety; (b) you're making too much money on the public; or (c) someone at your place has done something illegal or immoral.
Notice the truth I just enunciated--that SOMEONE did something improper, not that the organization did it. You can with accuracy counsel management and the media, when something bad happens, that if it was human error or frailty, then it was caused by an individual not the organization--and that both the individual and the organization are eagerly taking steps to prevent recurrence or anything close.
Management should be ready to say promptly, because it's true and important, that the great majority of people at the organization work hard every day to serve the public interest and make a living for their families. It's not a "fall guy" defense but an important truth that may not come out unless PR helps spotlight it.
Create "Work Product" Protection
If you investigate a charge, the government or a plaintiff's lawyer can subpoena you to reveal everything you found. But if your investigation was AT THE REQUEST OF A LAWYER, what you uncover is under the law considered "work product"--like what a client confides to a lawyer or a patient to a doctor--and can't be subpoenaed.
It can pay to have your lawyer counsel each member of management about this now, before there is something to investigate. If you ask a lawyer, "would you like me to get the facts on this" and the answer is yes, the information you uncover is work product.
For maximum protection, have the lawyer send you an e-mail asking you to investigate. The e-mail will be proof that what you found was work product.
Answer the Question
It can pay to give at least a partial answer even before you know the whole answer.
A PR executive was called a "stupid son of a bitch" by a partner of a top law firm because an innocuous statement had been issued without clearance. At a large drug company, the savvy new head of media relations was fired for issuing a news release that was completely accurate but had not been cleared.
So look now before it happens (if it hasn't happened to you already) at the classic problem of a journalist on the phone asking you about an accusation--perhaps a charge in legal papers you haven't even seen yet. If you DON'T reply before the journalist's deadline, the public sees the accusation but no reply--and many people will think there's probably some truth to the charge or else (a) it wouldn't have been made, and on top of that (b) it would have promptly been denied.
If you DO reply it can mean your ass because of lawyer fury.
So what can you do? One possibility is to say: I'm eager to see this in writing so I can show you the truth on this, but I can tell you--speaking as an individual for the moment and not for the organization:
a. The charge sounds crazy or exaggerated because the whole history of the organization has been to serve the public. (You should always be prepared to present cleared-by-the-lawyers information on how and how much the organization is serving the public--jobs, payroll, taxes paid, consumers served and life-saving actions and donations.)
b. Just as a child may say with total sincerity that "there's a monster under my bed," well-intentioned people--even very intelligent people--may sometimes see human error as more than it is, hence it can make sense to hold off making a judgment until investigation shows what the facts are.
c. It sounds to you from what the journalist has said that the charge is against individuals, not the whole organization of people who work hard every day to serve the public and earn a livelihood.
d. Although no organization including the media can boast that no individuals there have never made a mistake and never will, your whole experience is that management is damn good at serving the public interest and always eager to improve.
e. The journalist may be able to judge better than you can whether the accuser may be interested in getting some publicity or money out of the accusation--or may be well intentioned but without knowing all the facts.
All the above, if you clear it in advance with the lawyers, can help you to be fluent and assured in defending your organization--instead of halting and almost fearful of saying the wrong thing.
Your management becomes safer when PR creates, now before the next big accusation, and again when if a snit hits the fan, a sense of "public relationship"--a public awareness of what you've been doing for the public, and of the reality that all individuals are human and can make human mistakes, but the organization tries damn hard for the public because "we live here too."
Present Management In Perspective
If you look from an airplane at a horse, the animal will resemble a violin.
From behind, it will look like a horse's ass (as may a PR client if not well represented and counseled).
But importantly, just as a horse is instantly recognized as a horse and as a possible public benefactor when seen for what it is, clients and products can also be recognized as blessings or close to that when presented by PR from the right perspective.
Washington PR executives present truth to and through legislators so people see how the public will be better off--prices, jobs, the economy, safety, consumer freedom of choice or some other important consideration--if Washington does the right thing and avoids doing what can be bad from the perspective of public benefit.
Corporate PR wins allies for the company by presenting a perspective showing how the company is configured for growth in service to the public interest.
Association PR is helping members with pride and prejudice by (a) showing the truth on how members serve the public interest, and (b) getting rid of public misconceptions and prejudices that hurt the public and hurt the members, sometimes both emotionally and economically.
An important skill in PR--knowing how to create massive media coverage on important truths--is joined by an equally important skill: deciding which truths to present via the media so the company or product will be seen in a correct perspective.
What to see and what to say was once regarded as too difficult. Wrote poet Robert Burns of what he wished God had given us:
"O, I wad the giftie gie us // The pow'r to see irselves as ithers see us."
Today, for a modest budget, you can find out "how others see us" from expert research by (alphabetically) Interpublic, Omnicom, Publicis and WPP. For additional budget, these great PR teams can importantly CHANGE "how ithers see us."
The more courageous (and higher paid) PR executives at these top groups and elsewhere not only find out and even change how others see us, but also get clients to change a little, as by NOT polluting the river or permitting locker room humor on the job, so a correct public perspective may be more positive.
The most indemand PR skill is not telling management "you're wrong so do it my way." Rather, the key skill--sometimes hard as hell, but protective of management so it need not go through hell--can be doing something additional so millions of people reason correctly: "That's a good idea. That's damn helpful. These are good people." Same company, new perspective.
Old public vision: "They're endangering the public."
New truth the public can see: "They're protecting the public in three ways."
Instead of just hunkering down and saying "we have a right," NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION reaches out to the public--and promotes safety--with mass media releases distributed via NAPS on NRA's child safety program, safe hunting tips and other information that serves the public interest.
The MORTGAGE BANKERS ASSOCIATION, whose members are rarely thanked when a mortgage is approved so a family can live better but who may be condemned (sometimes by subprime accusers) when a family buys more than it can afford, helps turn wrath into reason by tips via the media on "Affording the Home of Your Dreams." Skillfully, such a release can help people not only to get what they want, but also to not blame the bankers for defaults that no one wants.
To protect the public against bad guys--and to protect the good guys among life insurance companies from being blamed--AMERICAN COUNCIL OF LIFE INSURANCE does releases, marvelously received by America's 10,000 newspapers, on the ASSOCIATION SYMBOL consumers should look for--and the code that the symbol represents.
Your Crisis Victory
How you handle a PR crisis can make or break your career and even your self-esteem. Fortunately, you you may have an excellent shot at superb results if you adopt this four-step preparation process outlined by Dorothy York writing in O'Dwyer's PR Report.
1. Win by the numbers.
Veteran PR executives have learned that crises often evolve from a charge that the organization has endangered the public, charged too much or been unfair.
What you can do to get ready for such charges and to triumph is to assemble in advance facts and figures, and to have the lawyers clear them, showing how just the opposite is true--that the company has been protecting the public, saving the public money and creating excellent opportunities for minorities, women and other groups.
You can better protect the company, when an accusation is made, if you answer not only "I can't wait to get back to you with the facts," but also show the truth with numbers and perhaps even illustrations or graphs.
2. Get your public relationships going.
Just as your company experts can win goodwill by speaking to schools and civic groups in plant towns with tips on getting a job, saving energy, protecting the environment, being safer and other helpful information, your releases to America's newspapers plus TV, radio and Internet news sites can bring in many hundreds of placements containing helpful information that people need and your company has.
When your PR creates a public attitude of gratitude, you protect your company and management against charges yet to come--and you make such charges less likely because activists are more likely to attack the reputationally weak than the strong whose known good deeds could make the public suspicious of accusers.
3. Help get rid of unfounded fears.
Government communicators are sometimes marvelous at helping the public not only avoid unfounded fears but also avoid the consequences of fears that are very well founded indeed. When government department and agency leaders put out the word to "let's save money," skilled government communicators sometimes find ways to save a huge chunk of government bucks by doing communications to hold down public actions that cost the public and our government serious money,
4. Retain a PR firm now--and consider having more than one.
Washington PR firms can help you even far from Washington because top specialist firms like APCO--and generalist firms with Washington offices of awesome power such as Edelman, Omnicom and WPP--are savvy about media relations related to litigation which is a peril to every company in every state.
PR firms of all sizes with strong marketing PR capabilities are good not only for creating coverage but also for guiding companies and associations away from what can bring trouble--and often for ending a crisis quickly and cleanly before it can do a lot of harm.
Thanks to the skills of both specialized firms and great generalists, Dorothy York points out, PR is good for not only sales but survival!
The $800 billion stimulus package and related legislation, with possibly more to come, is creating exciting opportunities for PR to help your organization's bottom line. Savvy Washington communicators are using PR techniques, sometimes brilliantly, to achieve three objectives:
1. Avert unduly burdensome taxes or regulation.
2. Encourage government action in the public interest--action that may also be very much in your management's interest.
3. Correct a public impression that could cost your organization a lot of money.
Newtonian laws of PR are emerging: a government at rest tends to remain at rest; a government moving in a certain direction tends to continue moving in the same direction unless a force acts upon the government, causing a change in direction.
That force is public opinion. Triggering the force is often enhanced recognition by the public of "what's in this for us" considerations.
Avert Unduly Burdesome Law
Fortunately for you, there is often a cost cover-up in proposals for government action that could hurt you. The public is told how it will benefit but not what the cost will be--often higher prices, fewer jobs or less consumer freedom of choice.
You face a classic scenario:
1. Your adversary, claiming to be motivated by the public interest (yet not adverse to a little publicity) points to "a grave peril" and says "the public deserves" to be protected by Washington action against the peril.
2. Legislative and administrative aides, seeing an opportunity for the boss to look like a public protector, have their legislator (a) warn of the peril; (b) urge strongly that the public be protected against you; and (c) co-sponsor so-called "remedial" legislation.
3. "I am strongly opposed" says the legislator, "to this wanton destruction of our environment" (or to "this excessive profiteering at the public expense" or to "this reckless endangerment of an unsuspecting public")
Never mind that most people may not know what the "wanton" of "wanton destruction" means. Some people may believe that self-styled public advocates and the legislator have been talking about "wantin' destruction."
You're facing double trouble--on the one hand the charge and the proposed remedy, and on the other hand your management and your lawyers may make, in planning the response, these plausible-sounding assumptions that could be disastrous:
Common-but-false Assumption A: If management doesn't "say too much" and "make waves," the whole thing will perhaps blow over.
Possible? Sure. But likely? Political mugging is often far too enjoyable and politically profitable for the muggers to just stop on their own and go away.
Management often doesn't have a "fight or run" choice to make; there's no place to run.
Common-but-false Assumption B: The lobbyist will handle this. The problem is in Washington so it's lobbying, not PR.
But PR can often win lobbyist gratitude by helping the lobbyist to do more than the lobbyist can do alone.
There is rarely a turf war between lobbying and PR because the former commonly reports to the general counsel who almost always plugs in at a higher level than the top PR person. The general counsel is often on the board--a rarity for PR people.
The general counsel makes more money and spends more than the PR executive. The general counsel not only calls the boss by first name as the PR person may but has a drink with the boss at home and on the company plane (if it hasn't been sold yet following the woes of Detroit executives who flew to Washington for a bailout) and kisses the boss's wife on the cheek.
So the general counsel is no one to mess with, yet even the best of them rarely have the PR skills needed so that media reports will motivate millions of voters to write their legislators urging support of your position. Your opportunity is not for PR to outdo your lobbyist but to help your lobbyist who in gratitude can do an awful lot to help your career.
It is tempting for the PR executive to avoid even the appearance of possible territory incursion by staying a mile away from lobbying pow-wows unless invited in. But the winner in many Washington wars is often a winning TEAM, the lobbyist keeping Congress informed and the PR people informing the public so the public will have the facts it needs to influence Congress successfully ("yes we can") in the public interest.
Peril of the Alternative
If the other side says you're a menace to society and you say you're not, there is a good chance you will lose. The public, not knowing which side is right, reasons: "Who needs this?" There is no food or medicine we can't live without, no economy stimulant or energy source we can't replace, if we feel that our health or wealth may be at stake.
But you don't have to lose because top communications teams have learned how to win.
When an artificial sweetener, used safely for many years by tens of millions of people, was labeled a possible carcinogen, corporate lawyers tried telling the public there was "no proof" the stuff was carcinogenic, and you can easily guess what happened. It was not much different from the food-from-China trouble that Edelman and others stepped in to help manage.
Hill and Knowlton experts were called in by the sweetener people. Like a fleet of huge battleships and a skyful of airplanes firing weapons to sink unfounded fears, Hill and Knowlton got thousands of newspapers, broadcasters and other media to tell the American public repeatedly:
1. Calories kill!
2. Fewer calories can mean less weight, more longevity and a better sex life.
3. The clients sweetener had almost no calories at all--close to zero.
It was all true and sales soared. No legislation was passed, as some had urged, banning or restricting use of the sweetener. Hill and Knowlton gave the client sweet success by increasing awareness of the truth--the peril of the alternative: overweight, diabetes and in some cases premature death.
When Californians were to vote on a proposition that would have substantially closed down the state's nuclear generating capacity (nuclear plants then cost about a billion each) a senator had said in pre-bailout days, "a billion here, a billion there, before you know it we're talking about real money."
The activists made these arguments:
* Nuclear presents an unacceptable level of peril to the public interest from possible explosion.
* Nuclear presents an unacceptable level of peril to the public interest from radiation emissions.
* Nuclear presents an unacceptable level of peril to the public from waste disposal dangers. NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) the public was urged to tell Congress.
Some in the industry tried answering, in substance: "It's not really all that dangerous, and in life you have to accept a certain amount of danger."
That answer increased public alarm. Maybe in life we have to accept SOME danger but not THAT danger, the public reasoned.
With one side arguing that this stuff may kill you while the other side argued it's not likely, there was near-panic in the streets of California. Newscasts showed parents clutching their children in front of public buildings, long-haired college students crying and chaining themselves together and begging the public to take an interest, and political leaders expressing outrage that the nuclear industry could be "so insensitive" to the public and "so greedy."
Many in the industry felt hopeless. Their own children were asking why it was necessary to work for such an industry. Neighbors characterized industry's "some risk is necessary" claim as disgusting. The industry's public relationship was not only very bad but getting worse.
Grimly, top management decided that doing something different would make more sense than continuing the "some risk is necessary" argument, so people with PR combat experience were brought in. The change was dramatic; witness this new set of arguments:
* Nuclear PROTECTS the public against an unacceptable level of peril from air pollution.
* Nuclear PROTECTS the public against an unacceptable level of peril from electricity and heating costs going through the roof, hitting too many homeowners when already too many homeowners are losing their homes.
* Nuclear PROTECTS the public against an unacceptable level of peril that Middle Eastern or other rulers could cause massive U.S. unemployment by turning off our oil supply.
Westinghouse was at the time a big supplier of nuclear generating equipment, and also advertised consumer appliances with the slogan: "You can be sure if it's Westinghouse."
So a salvo of releases focused on which idea seemed more credible regarding our energy supply: "You can be sure if it's Westinghouse" or "You can be sure if it's Sheikh Ahmed Zaki al Yemani" who was a Middle East oil minister.
The proposed initiative against nuclear power generation was voted down resoundingly in a triumph of facts over fears.
Unfortunately for the industry, industry management after winning stopped taking the PR medicine. They would hire excellent PR talent in Washington but then not provide enough staff and budget. Industry leaders made rousing and congratulatory speeches to each other, and applauded each other, but lost out as the public lost memory of why we needed what the industry supplied.
Your Management: Heroic?
Busy people are quick to judge, and want to get it right, so PR can sometimes help the public and management by getting management into a public service role that can make over 100 million Americans grateful to the company.
Of America's 300 million people, probably over 200 million have lost a relative or friend to heart disease or cancer, so companies that help fight these ailments are seen as a public treasures.
Interestingly, an astute PR executive can identify medical research leaders who often produce news of an important advance every year--sometimes two or more times a year--in areas the public cares about deeply.
Two heart experts, Drs. Larry Chinitz and Richard Steingart, study the regularity of heart beats in ways that may lengthen the lives of millions, especially older Americans.
A top dermatologist, Bruce Strober, does medical journal articles read worldwide by doctors and reporting not only on what's new and what works but also--sometimes bluntly--on what doesn't work, at least in the dosage tested, so that doctors may give patients something better.
Is it possible to develop an anti-cancer vaccine that can prevent cancer the way Salk vaccine prevents polio? Surprisingly to many people, the answer may well be yes! Dr. Ronald Levy (no relation to me) at Stanford University, and Dr. Julie M. Vose at University of Nebraska, have become world-famous among cancer doctors for experiments that put medical science closer and closer to anti-cancer vaccines. These vaccines may save many of the one in three Americans now living who, at least for now, are likely to be done in by the disease.
Other medical superstars who may change the world--and win immense gratitude for those companies or industries who back the research--include Dr. Bruce Cheson of Georgetown University, Dr. Richard Fisher of Rochester University, plus Drs. Myron Czuczman in Buffalo, Lisa De Angelis in New York City, Thomas Miller in Phoenix, Joeph Connors in Vancouver Canada, Andrew Lister in London, Michael Pfreundschuh in Hamburg, and Pier Lugi Zinzanni at the University of Blogna in Italy.
Each doctor generally writes several medical journal articles each year, and each article can be the basis of readily-generated media coverage worldwide.
Who'll Be Fired
Not all top PR people think in such grand terms as creating worldwide medical benefit and public gratitude, and not all top PR people survive in their jobs.
In Washington, one of the juiciest association PR jobs went to an unusually bright corporate PR executive from the Northeast who was witty, urbane, maturely handsome, excellent with the media and a better-than-fair writer. But in Washington the PR executive because so enmeshed in orientation meetings, planning sessions, field communications, "getting up to speed" and "putting out fires," by the end of six months he had accomplished very little beyond "restructuring" and "reconfiguring"--and they fired him.
Others in Washington PR manage to keep their top jobs and are hired away for even better ones after making more productive allocations of time and budget--"yes" to activities that will produce more media coverage and other important benefits for the company, "no" to time and budget expenditures less likely to put points on the board.
The Great Ones
The great ones in PR are proactive, not just reactive.
Some in PR have the inner fire--the motivation to increase PR productivity to please not just employers but themselves--and unto them shall great treasures be awarded, and honors bestowed, and their happiness shall abound.
Your PR skill can help the world to focus blame on the world's problems, not on your management, and to focus deep gratitude on your management's effort to importantly supply part of the answers for which the world's problems cry out.
Ronald N. Levy, research director of North American Precis Syndicate, is a graduate of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. His firm distributes camera-ready releases for major PR firms and departments. He is a media expert who tracks which types of releases get the best pick-up from the mass media. And he is a Contributing Editor of Public Relations Quarterly.
300 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016.
Levy, Ronald N. "Recession PR opportunities.(Superstar PR)." Public Relations Quarterly 52.4 (2007): 38+. Academic OneFile. Web. 17 Dec. 2009.
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