The Greatest (Ongoing) Failure of Communicators

(With an eyeball-grabbing headline like that, I’d better bring the
stick, right?)

I’ll guess that most of you who know me would bet that this post will
be about the lack of social media utilization by communicators as why
the headlines have been filled with “communications disasters” in the
last year plus. But you’d be wrong. Many of those disasters had a
social media component in the response, some of them significant. (You
can get into the tactical part of those responses and question if they
could have been done better, but that’s not a fault I would call
pervasive.)

I would argue that most of those so-called “communications disasters”
are little more than operational disasters masquerading as
communications failures. Look at the list of Top Ten Crises of
2011

pulled together by the Holmes Report:

  • TEPCO
  • News Corp
  • Penn State
  • Blackberry
  • Dow Chemical
  • Netflix
  • Sony
  • HP
  • Qantas
  • European Central Bank

Now, I’m not so naive as to think that there wasn’t significant public
relations complicity in some of these situations. But each of them
were operational disasters dropped into the laps of the communications
team who were told, “Deal with this,” or worse, “Don’t say a word.”
And now they’ve been excoriated by an outfit like the Holmes Report.
I’m willing to bet that next year’s list will include the unfolding
Komen/Planned Parenthood disaster. The Komen PR team will likely get
strung up for being obstinate and non-communicative, for authorizing
statements that ran counter to reality and for generally bungling the
reputation of one of the country’s most reputable brands.

The thing is, I think that’s generally unfair. Taking the Komen
situation as my example, I’m willing to bet that the decision to cut
funding to Planned Parenthood was made without the input of the PR
team. And frankly, there’s no way to gussy up that pig, lipstick or
no. In fact, at the time the decision was made (late last year), Komen
was in the middle of a corporate restructuring that caused them to
lay off their Senior Communications
Advisor
,
John Hammarley.

The organization was in such turmoil at the time that Komen hired
former White House Press Secretary Ari
Fleischer

to supervise a search for a new Senior Vice President for
Communications and External Relations. During the interviews,
Fleischer specifically asked about the candidates’ feelings on the
Planned Parenthood situation. In short, at a time when the
Communications Department was undergoing significant change and losing
institutional knowledge and relationships, the leadership was
preparing for the upcoming disaster. I think it goes without saying
that the leadership was directing this process, and building a
Communications Department to fit their plans. (That the new Senior VP
and restructured Department did a poor job is simply an expected
outcome of the piss-poor strategy.) (And just between you and me, I
wonder about the restructuring going on at the same time that the
leadership was pressing to institute a policy that no PR team could
cover; a coincidence?)

So the greatest (ongoing) failure of communicators? Continuing to
allow major policy decisions to be made without their input. Cowing to
leadership that seems set upon steering the agency/corporation into
the rocks. Would you blame the helmsman who followed Admiral
Farragut’s
order to
“Damn the torpedoes,” if ultimately the gambit failed?

And I’m not the only person who sees this failure. Smart folks who do
this type of thinking for real see it, too. Gerald
Baron
.
Richard Edelman.
Bill Salvin
(I took Bill’s point in this post as communicators need to be brought
into the loop—fully—as soon after a crisis occurs as possible, in
order to help guide policy and craft both operational and PR
response).

Maybe this way of conducting PR/PI/PA makes sense in a world of old
media, where you had hours to craft a response and bring in your PR
team to lipstick up your pig before tomorrow’s edition. In today’s
24/7 media (I’ve taken to calling it a 10-second media landscape, as
that’s the longest it takes to write and publish a tweet), every
second that your PIO doesn’t know what’s going on, your organization
falls further behind the curve. Every interview they give that’s full
of holding statements damages your credibility. Bill Salvin
demonstrates what that delay means anymore:

I first realized this was going to be a problem back in 2009 when US Airways ditched into the Hudson River. People started tweeting about it immediately. We watched the plane floating down the river on one side of the screen as US Airways President Doug Parker used a template to “confirm there has been an incident.” The statement was delivered 96 minutes after the plane hit the river. It seemed it took forever to get that statement and that was three years ago.

Bringing your PR team or PIO into planning meeting after it happens
means you’re already behind the eight ball. Having them as a key
planning partner before it happens ensures your organization is
leaning forward and might get a chance to smear some lipstick on
before the cameras go on (or maybe even convince leadership not to put
a pig out there in the first place).

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One thought on “The Greatest (Ongoing) Failure of Communicators

  1. Jim,Your observations on the need to incorporate PR in the process is well put. In this new era of instant access, anytime, anywhere, information is the commodity. Think about it – even if you don’t buy a company’s product, or are a client, you still often consume their information (provided by the organization itself, or a third party). I don’t purchase certain food products, or frequent certain businesses or utilize their services – but if they’re high profile enough, that doesn’t stop me from having an opinion about them, positive or negative. And in these days of social networks and “social reach” – opinions matter like never before.As a result, the message IS the policy, at least in terms of perception. That is to say, the increasingly savvy information consumer expects organizations to have their act together when it comes to messaging – regardless of how reasonable or reflective of reality that may or may not be. Anything short of a “perfect” (or expected) messaging performance – either proactively or in response to an unexpected event (e.g. the Hudson River ditching) is going to challenge a person’s established opinion about the organization, its policies and decision making process.A organization that makes their PIO/PR team an integral part of not just policy decisions, but policy development, should generally do okay. But if the PIO/PR team is the back-up plan for when things don’t go well, these days they better be a crack team of lipstick on a drove of greased pig rodeo ninjas.

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