Posted by Phil Hall
Thou Shalt Smite HR People Responsible for Bad Corporate PR
I once worked at a publishing company with a serious human resources problem: the editors kept quitting. One publication had four editors in the span of two years, another had three editors in the same two year span. What’s wrong with that picture, huh?
But that was just one division of the company. Another division took the “Hassan chop!” approach to its workforce and wildly cut away huge chunks of its employee ranks. The result was an office with large stretches of empty desks. One part of the office was designated as the graveyard for computer terminals, a sad digital testimony to a depleted corporate environment.
Mercifully, I checked out of that lunatic asylum as fast as I could. After I was free, a colleague in the media who was unaware of my employment in that company offered acute after-the-fact commiseration: “I’m surprised you lasted that long!” he said. “That company has the worst reputation. They can’t keep anyone for any amount of time.”
So where was the company’s Human Resources office in the midst of this revolving door turnover and the wasteland of empty desks and piled-up computer terminals? Obviously, the dum-dum in charge of HR didn’t know her ass from her elbow, because the problems in the company raised the largest red flags this side of the USSR. And it wasn’t just a question of a dysfunctional work environment – the fact that my media colleague knew the horror stories from that miserable company showed there was a serious PR problem, too.
Most people don’t see the connection between HR and PR, but it surfaces when you have a problem-plagued working environment. My personal example is strictly small time silliness – major entities have major HR-PR woes. Look at Wal-Mart and the issue of its health care benefits. For all of the rosy press releases on its philanthropic largesse and its phony good news blogs, the company is still plagued with bad PR on how it treats its workforce.
Or for that matter, look at the U.S. Army and the Walter Reed scandal. After months of internal complaints, there was no action regarding the unsanitary conditions at that military hospital until the wounded soldiers (for all intents and purposes, the “employees” of the Department of Defense) started talking to the Washington Post.
The problem with corporate HR officers is their myopia: they are concerned solely with the internal operations of a company and they never think twice about whether low morale or office scandals will filter into the wider world. When outsiders start asking hard questions, HR turns reactive in the worst possible way. For some HR people, their idea of damage control is not to fix the exposed situations, but to punish those who dare to reveal the problems (witness the Department of Defense, in reaction to the Walter Reed scandal, abruptly issuing orders forbidding the hospitalized soldiers from having any contact with the media).
HR also fails the PR effort when the wrong people are hired and wind up embarrassing the company without any fear of retribution. I worked at a company where the receptionist (an immigrant from Eastern Europe) seemed to have the most casual relation with the English language. Callers would constantly complain that they couldn’t understand a word she was saying, particularly when they were trying to leave messages. As the first contact point with the company, the receptionist was a terrible brand ambassador (the perception that she was incompetent – she was actually very intelligent, but this was not the right job for her). At least one person told me that he hated calling my office because of the unintelligible receptionist. Talk about bad PR!
Then there was that nutty publishing company where I worked once – they hired an editor who was an obnoxious disaster. A colleague confided in me that the editor, within three months of being hired, “pissed off half of the people in the industry” covered by that particular publication. Things actually got to a head when the editor’s coverage of a specific company was so wildly off-target that the company’s legal counsel sent a brutal letter to the president of the publishing firm that stated, in a nutshell, how the editor got all of the facts wrong and jumped to inane conclusions that bore no resemblance to the truth. Needless to say, the publication suffered terrible PR within its industry all because of one person.
Now that’s bad HR-into-PR. As a positive example: my mother recently had a problem regarding the delivery of a package via Fedex. I won’t detail the matter, but I will say that my mother called Fedex and left a complaint. The next day, the regional supervisor called her back, apologized profusely, explained there had been other complaints with this delivery person, and promised to handle the matter immediately so it would not be repeated. That’s my idea of taking an HR problem (in this case, a shoddy delivery person) and going directly to the customer with one-on-one PR crisis control (the Fedex brand looked pretty good to Mom after the supervisor called her).
My message to the HR officers out there: whether you like it or not, you are just as responsible for a company’s reputation and industry standing as the corporate communications officers or the fun bunch in the executive suites. Unhappy workers have a way of sharing their disappointment or anger with the outside world, which in turn can germinate into a major reputation disaster. And incompetent employees can also bring wreckage and ruin to a well-established corporate reputation just by being themselves. At which point, it is no longer a question of faulty human resources – it becomes a public relations nightmare.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
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