Melaleuca Media
Spinners are Grinners

When does a company need a PR manager? When does a spokesperson do a public mea culpa in a crisis? Business Acumen slipped under the schmooze to find out how the PR industry sort issues.

You've got a crisis, you want some positive spin, you want some payola for your moula, you want to burst onto the scene, creep in slowly or get out if it for a while. Who loves ya baby? PR consultants – the dreaded sort who schmooze and slide their subjects front of house or slip them out the back route in the van.

Journalists mutter about “the dark side”, but PR is necessary these days according to Robina Xavier Lecturer and Area Coordinator for Public Relations in the School of Advertising, Marketing and PR at QUT. Xavier is also the immediate past President of the Queensland branch of the Public Relations Institute of Australia and told Acumen “Business is realising their relationships with a variety of groups - it is not just consumers now. The role of PR has become more important because we look at a range of publics including government, employees, members of the community, regulators shareholders.” She says many firms these days either have their own PR person on staff or engage outside specialists.

And just look at what happens when a situation gets out of control. Hiring the Deen Brothers to trash some big trees near a creek for a Woolworths site, community members crying, hanging on to them, climbing them it all made for great recent TV and news in Queensland. And with the growing campaign, signatures on petitions, sit ins, threatened boycotts and general outrage, Woolworths and the developer, Cornerstone Properties were clearly on the back foot.

PR disaster? Definitely say many in the industry. And it comes from not understanding the depth of feeling community members have for green space, the lingering resentment and the cynicism out there when big business take too much for granted.

Take this on a chat site. “Just a quick note on the destruction of platapus (sic) habitat in Malaney Qld. Totally wrong no one wants the bloody thing. So have a think before you go to buy the milk down the local stupidmarket.”

Ouch. Consumer campaigns can start up and hurt.

And, say the professionals, when mistakes happen, they often come from ignorance about how the media work and what reporters want and need.

Well respected and long time Brisbane PR professional Pam Robson gives her clients a lesson in media 101. “The really important thing to understand when dealing with journalists is their job is to report a crisis, usually daily – so the journo needs a new story every day. You have to recognise this so the client has to be putting out regular statements “

But a company shouldn't wait for a crisis to get its communications pathways sorted out says Ms Robson. One of the most important rules is working out who is the public spokesperson for the organisation. “You have to establish the process of communication, ideally there is one person giving out information, you don't want lots of people putting their own views out which are not consistent and views must be clearly communicated.”

It is also important to communicate well inside the organisation. “There is a much more professional view of PR now and a realisation it can be internal and external. So while dealing externally with the media, customers and the public, you have got to simultaneously manage communications internally. Often staff are affected and need to have some sort of idea of what is going on and secondly, I have found in a crisis how much rumour goes around and people guess what they don't know and this is why it must be managed carefully.”

Corporate communication is not about covering it up says Helen Besly Managing Director, Rowland Communication Groups who says the paradigm has shifted since the initial days of PR. “It isn't about sweeping things under the carpet – it is about organisations telling their side of the story and why and how they approach and do things. It is far too late to start having relationships with your stakeholders in a crisis because they don't know or trust you.”

Companies are moving away from PR as a term she says “because it points to some of the tactics in media relations. Now we help companies manage relations with all stakeholders and one of the ways to do that is via the media. Communications managers should be looking at all communication with all stakeholders including internal and external, customers and suppliers, government and communities. Then they look at the way to strategically communicate whether it is website, brochures, profile, promotions, speeches or media. We want to understand the corporate story and we break that into themes and then apply the corporate story to all the tactics (see box).

Companies must prepare for the best and for the worst says Ms Robson otherwise an intial crisis can get worse or spiral out of control. “Say if you are a mine, a resort, an airline, a building site - if there is an accident, you need to look after the bereaved, particularly with information. You have got to make sure people aren't filling in the gaps so have to have a chain of communication and ideally from a single source. The last thing you want is a bereaved person saying they didn't know or they weren't told of some important point.”

She acknowledges this can be difficult in today's litigious world. “Sometimes a company is affected by what they can say legally, or constrained by police – however the spokesperson can make that clear. They can say the lawyers or the police have advised us to say this”.

In fact crisis management is when many companies first approach a PR firm agencies told Acumen. Dealing with a crisis can either result in containing it, or things spiralling out of control, depending on the personalities and approach taken. There are times to keep schtoom, times to do a mea culpa and times to 'fess up they say. And if you pick it wrong it can go pear shaped fast.

Why does it all fall apart? “Numerous people with different personalities all talking to different people” is one reason according to Ms Robson. “My own thought is sometimes companies come in late and on the back foot. It is human nature, if they haven't had much experience with the media they want to run and hide and not say anything. I advise my clients to be active early on in the piece and come clean with their story. And I won't take on liars – I tell all my clients my reputation with the media is bigger than all my clients.”

Not all PR firms are so frank or honest according to PR investigative journalist and author of Secrets and Lies, Bob Burton. “A lot of what the PR industry does I would put into the category of mostly harmless. It is soft stuff like launches, hustling media releases, organising public events. It is hard to get excited about that. Then there are the genuinely public interest campaigns like QUIT or for skin cancer awareness or road safety.”

“But most of the controversy is around certain issues or crisis management and that is all about controlling the flow of information and controlling public debate to suit the client which is at odds with the right of the public to know.”

Mr Burton has investigated and exposed many slick PR operations at the pointy end in Australia and overseas. He regularly talks to PR professionals in and recently retired from the industry and goes through (often leaked) PR strategies and tactical documents.

“Why would any company need the services of a PR company? It is because the PR people have good contacts with journalists, editors, politicians and they seek to leverage that to ensure their clients message is the one that dominates. Generally the bigger the company, the more determined they are there is one point of view. They seek to smother dissenting voices and it becomes about dominating the debate.”

Mr Burton rejects the notion the industry may have “evolved” saying that is “spin on spin”. “ PR got bad PR so they have changed the name of the industry to Communications. The only way you can test PR companies is by seeing their client list and their own internal PR documents. ”

He says the starting point for anyone in business wanting to hire a PR firm either for a campaign or on a monthly retainer is to demand their current client list. This is both to know if there are conflicts of interest with other clients and to see how honest they are. “There are a handful of companies who voluntarily disclose publicly and on their website but they are the exception rather than the rule. Be skeptical about taking the line of a PR company that we are here to ensure transparency because most aren't themselves and if they aren't about it themselves how can anyone believe they will do it for their clients?”

He says it is also important to know past associations because past controversies with clients can be associated with the PR company and thence with their other clients. “Say for example a company has worked with a tobacco company and documents reveal tactics they have used, the public will assume those tactics are used for other clients.”

He says the industry has gone through a “huge state of flux, with advertising firms buying up many companies, paying too much and now selling them off. Many have shut up shop or moved into affiliations.”

Be careful of the spend he says. “A lot of people who work in the PR industry have told me what an absolute waste of their clients money it can become. They can promise a lot and not deliver so companies have to be extremely cautious about what they are signing on for.” He also says make sure you are getting quality for your money and not “paying the head honcho rate for some time from them and a lot of time from junior staff.”

And make sure you know what it is you are getting. “A lot of people think there is so much mystique in the PR industry and they like this.”

Acumen found rates can vary from top QC rates of many thousands of dollars a day through to the standard around $120 per hour. One former Queensland executive director confided she happily paid a noted Melbourne PR person $5,000 per day to be on call “at midnight” if necessary.

The top rates are usually paid by those where big dollars depend on reputations remaining intact and usually when there are PR crises about to hit or hitting. And there are good and bad examples of managing them according to Ms Xavier who specialises in researching and evalutating crisis management.

“There are good examples of handling a crisis well. I would say Smith Kline Beecham's response to product tampering and the Herron relaunch of its paracetamol is one example.”

Herron was one of ours, says Ms Besley, and it is “a good example of an organisation that faced a crisis and committed to communicating. Ewan Murdoch used his own values to make the deicisons about what he did with the company and his concern was for the people who used their products. He made sure they were informed and their safety wasn't compromised.”

Not all pharmaceuticals companies did so well according to Ms Xavier. “Pan Pharmaceuticals' response broke all the rules and was totally ineffective.”

And she comes back to the Woolworths issue “ I think the Maleny issue has not been handled well. Having said that, the community has used public relations to its advantage which just goes to show that public relations is utilised by all sides to an issue.”

Reputation matters. The truth outs. Mucking it up can happen fast and these days people know how to make a company suffer. Things get out of control. Bits of information flow, build, mistakes compound, the public assumes the worst. Newspapers, tv, radio and even those chat rooms keep the drums pounding.

“cool i'm glad someone agrees. We really need to stop supporting these type of businesses no matter how conveinent they may be. Power to the peaceful!”

“i dont know too much about this.. but my sister saw it in the paper or something that because the protestors wouldnt let people wreck habitat & environment to build woolies.. they ended up digging up the area at some outrageous hour of the morning when no one was around?? is this true?”

Yeah baby. It was true all right.

Finding a PR firm

The Brisbane Yellow Pages lists more than a hundred PR firms and individuals. Prices and offers can vary wildly. Robina Xavier recommends a starting point is the Public Relations Institute of Australia which has a a registered consultancies group. To be on the list the PR people “have to agree to a range of standards including ethical behaviour. There has to be some expertise, there are some financial hurdles they have to meet as have to have revenue of certain levels. The PRIA also sanction members who get it wrong using warnings and giving notices about breaches.” She says sanctions of individual members and consultancies have happened though with defamation rules it is hard to publish these days. It is also important to ask for their experience in particular field, ask for some case study evidence, look at a portfolio of experience, check their referees, talk to businesses that have used them and finally as it is a relationship process you have to feel you can have a good working relationship. A good PR person should “give you advice on how best to establish or maintain your reputation, help you understand how the media works, how to have a profile in the media, will help you leverage your marketing process and help you identify potential issues for the organisation and how to manage them.”

What a PR company should do according to Rowlands

1. Work with the team inside an organisation taking a good look inside and identifying the “corporate story”, any competitive advantage, the organisation's point of view, any point of differentiation with other companies or products, look at what it stands for. They will ask what is the story any product, why should people buy it? They will advise an organisation needs to have values, help with identifying them and advise an organisation to live and breathe them.

2. They will turn this information into a corporate story and record it. They will give work with messages and themes so everybody in the company can understand them. “Many people forget all your staff are your brand advocates” says Ms Besly.

3. They will assess who are all the people who need to hear the organisation's story in many cases not just customers. “It could be people who can influence them, industry bodies, regulators or suppliers”.

4. Plan time. The PR company will work out how to tell that story to the people identified. They will assess how those people get their information. “The skill for the PR person is how to make the story interesting to journalists says Ms Besly. The PR company will also assess what company or product documentation is needed. “Case studies and testimonials are excellent and they should be printed and put in corporate documentation. They may advise you present at industry forums, be involved promotion or sponsorship” she says.

5. All of the staff need to know this information because they are marketing this story every day.