Posted by an Honored Guest Tuesday, February 13, 2007
You lookin at me? You wanna piece of this? Well bring it on 'cause my dog's here's gonna take a piece of your ass!
Just an image to make a point. Sometimes you hire a law firm that's SO aggressive that your opponent will invariably want to run let alone settle. Same is true in the marketplace of communications. Today, we've got a guest column from none other than the infamous "pit bull of public relations," Eric Dezenhall.
Dezenhall is the Founder and CEO of Dezenhall Resources, one of the nation’s leading crisis management firms. His areas of expertise include hard-news media relations. His forte is marketplace defense.
Have you read his book Nail 'Em! Confronting High Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses? If you haven't you should. In it he outlines a model for how media-hyped attacks on businesses and public figures are "packaged" to include "Villains, Victims and Vindicators" that fit a pre-cast entertainment format. He describes modern-day witch hunts and the techniques employed to preempt and defuse disparaging media coverage. It is an import reference piece widely cited in business, media and academic circles.
As a result, Eric pretty much owns the category. As such, he regularly appears as a damage control expert for international media including NPR, CNN, Fox, CNBC, C-SPAN, MSNBC, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Geraldo, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Washington Post. He is a contributing writer to Ethical Corporation magazine, and has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New Republic. Today, it is our distinct pleasure to say he's written an article for us.
Why PR Gets No Respect (Look to the Mea Culpa)
by Eric Dezenhall
One of the chief complaints of public relations executives is that our discipline isn’t respected by top corporate management. Is it possible that PR hasn’t earned that respect? I think so, and will offer one possible explanation: PR people tend to traffic in Mother Goose crisis management bromides that are at direct odds with what real world experience teaches.
There’s no better example of this than that post-Watergate canard that if Nixon has just “fessed up” and apologized, the break-in scandal would have gone away. The PR industry’s evangelical belief in the mea culpa and its attendant rhetoric don’t square with what real world experience teaches, and people in positions of responsibility know it. Had Nixon fessed up and apologized, he would have been quickly impeached, tried in a court of law and convicted, not to mention been dismembered in Lafayette Park.
I’m not, of course, defending Nixon, who richly deserved being removed from office, but pointing out that top executives under fire want to be in the trenches with war-weary veterans, not Glee Club alumni who preach that “every crisis is an opportunity.” Tell that to Martha Stewart.
When Stewart fell into the insider-trading soup, the airwaves were alight with PR pundits suggesting that she apologize. “She can’t!” shouted a client, the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, as we were watching the talking heads on a cable news show. She didn’t -- and couldn’t have because she was facing trial. An apology is an admission of guilt. Attorneys arguing that their clients are not guilty frown upon public confessions to say the least. There is a natural tension between the communications and legal processes that don’t lend themselves to pat solutions. Not only did Martha Stewart not apologize before going to prison, she didn’t apologize afterward either. Instead, she remained faithful to her feisty style by taking an unrepentant stance, which was what she needed to do to position herself among her loyal followers as the victim of this affair.
The Clinton-Lewinsky drama is another case in point. The PR chorus of mea culpa echoed in cable news studios across the country when the presidential scandal broke. Not only did Clinton not apologize, he lied: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” The following day, a poll was conducted after Clinton’s State of the Union address, placing his job approval rating at 73%. Eventually Clinton apologized – after exposing the hypocrisy of the Republican Members of Congress who could have removed him from office. Only when his adversaries had been crippled did Clinton apologize, a critical nuance not lost on battle-scarred executives.
Kobe Bryant’s lawyers understood this nuance well when they negotiated their settlement of his rape case, using a technique that I refer to as the “transactional” apology. Bryant issued a tortured, watered-down acknowledgement of his alleged victim’s pain -- after his legal team spent more than a year publicly scrutinizing her sexual and mental health histories – in exchange for her dropping the charges.
Then there is the case of Harvard president Lawrence Summers who apologized three times for making disparaging remarks about women’s capabilities in math and science. No sale: Summers left office shortly after the tempest. Multiple apologies also didn’t do Senator Trent Lott much good either after he made remarks suggesting that the one-time segregationist presidential candidate Senator Strom Thurmond should have been elected President. Lott was swiftly removed as Senate Majority Leader.
In Western culture, it’s understandable that we tie apology to forgiveness. This is especially tempting since the public relations industry, in a desperate attempt to win respect from the broader culture, preaches this line so zealously. Hard evidence from the PR war zones, however, suggests that apologies work best when the violation is either aberrant or isolated. As for defusing more chronic battles, one is more likely to get out alive by entering the fray and navigating the cross-currents rather than assuming a swiftly spun apology will win the day. Seasoned executives and general counsels understand the vicissitudes of human nature and the marketplace and are more likely to respect PR counselors who do, too.
PS: Be on the lookout of his forthcoming book, Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong.
Thou Shalt Not Waste Time with PR Award Competitions!
My colleagues in the industry will hate me for this, but it needs to be stated in without any degree of moderation: the PR industry awards are a waste of time and money and should be avoided.
Now, I am not stating this because my vines have cultivated a bumper crop of sour grapes. I’ve participated successfully in these competitions and my work snagged a few trophies. I’ve also had the responsibility (not privilege) of judging a few awards competitions. Having received PR awards and having determined which folks should receive them, I cannot help but feel they are of no value.
The reason for this negativity is twofold. First, there is an egregious glut of awards being handed out. The PR industry rivals the entertainment world for the mass quantity of honors it bestows on itself. Many of the national trade groups have annual awards, and the regional chapters of these groups have their own local awards. Likewise, many of the trade media have their own award competitions (though truth be told, those awards exist primarily as a major revenue enhancement scheme for the publishers – they can make some fast bucks on the entry fees – rather than as a genuinely sincere celebration of PR excellence).
Even within the individual award competitions, there are an absurdly high number of categories for the trophy chase. The PRSA’s Silver Anvils, arguably the most respected of the industry’s honors, has 16 different categories. But within each category are anywhere from two-to-six subcategories. For example, the Marketing Consumer Products Award has individual prizes going for best achievement in the Healthcare, Technology, Food & Beverage, Packaged Goods, Non-Packaged Goods and “Other” industries (the latter is a lump-‘em-together of “categories not elsewhere defined,” according to the PRSA).
But that’s just the Silver Anvils – the Bronze Anvils have 50 different categories and subcategories. What’s the difference in the awards? Well, according to the PRSA’s web site, the “Silver Anvil Awards recognize complete programs incorporating sound research, planning, execution and evaluation” while the Bronze Anvil Awards “recognize outstanding public relations tactics, the individual items or components of programs or campaigns.” And anyone who thinks that’s logical obviously had an anvil (silver, bronze or whatever metallic nature) dropped on their head.
The second problem is something that few award givers in the PR universe are willing to acknowledge: none of these awards competition carry any clout beyond their respective organizing committees. Outside of the industry, PR awards are meaningless to the point of being thoroughly ignored. One individual responsible for an annual PR award presentation (who will not be identified here) used to boast fantastically that judging that particular award competition was “an honor.” Strangely, that person had a bitch of a time trying to get anyone from the industry to embrace that “honor” and the judging was mostly done in-house.
I’ve done a search of national media and I have yet to locate a single news story about the results of a PR industry award. The only genuine mainstream media coverage I could locate on a PR industry award presentation came from the weekly (and relatively unimportant) New York Observer on March 13, 2006, when it covered the PR Week Awards with the decidedly unflattering headline “Publicists Lauded for Flackery; PR Gods Get Freedom From Press” (the rest of the article was equally snarky).
Even if you bring the awards directly to the gathering point of the major national media, they won’t pay attention. PR News, for example, hosts several of its awards (it has five different award competitions) at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. – yet, to date, none of their awards ever received any national press coverage.
And that’s just for the awards. There are also at least four different groups in the industry offering their own PR Hall of Fame. No further comment required on that!
(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.)
On Thursday, March 8, 2007 at 7:41 AM, Ronn Torossian, President and CEO of 5WPR, emphatically promised that he was going to sue us. No real reason, he was just irritated by our teasing him about getting in bed with pornographer Joe Francis. Anyway, Ronn gave his obscenity-laced word that we'd see the complaint in 72 hours. It's now late by
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