PR and communication is multi-layered. These posts are our take on what's going on in business, in the community, locally, nationally and internationally. It's about what's good practice and what can be done better. Let us know what you think.
On December 5, 2011, the UK's Independent newspaper ran a story about how the Bureay of Investigative Journlism had posed as a (fake) investment vehicle for Uzbekistan and caught executives of PR company Bell Pottinger Group on film boasting of how they could employ 'dark arts' to improve that state's reputation.
Radio New Zealand's Saturday morning host Kim Hill interviewed Iain Overton, of the UK's Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the whole issue of reputation laundering - a two billion pound industry.
In a meeting today with other communication colleagues, I was intrigued to hear one refer to the the use of 'dark arts,' and it raised this question of ethics in communication and PR.
Protecting and enhancing reputation isn't about laundering, it's about doing the right thing in the first place. That means being honest and open. For a PR company, that means working with a client on an ethical basis, not covering up their transgressions but helping them deal with the fallout and ensuring the client does business in the right way for the future.
The trouble comes when the PR company makes offers to cover up by for example, changing Wikipedia entries by removing factual but negative criticism and inserting favourable comment; targeting individuals with negative comment on Wiki; using SEO to push negative comment down the rankings and elevating positive comment using fictitious persona to do so; or as has happened here in NZ, developing fictitious 'activist' groups to infiltrate groups with opposing viewpoints.
There are right ways and wrong ways to recover a reputation and build a good reputation. The UK example is one where the PR company itself has damaged its own reputation by saying one thing, and doing another. Honesty and transparency must be the hallmarks of reputation management. Practising 'dark arts' has no place in good communication and PR.
Note: New Zealand's Public Relations Institute (PRINZ) has a Code of Ethics and carries out ethics training for its members.
When the MV Rena grounded on the Astrolabe Reef on Wednesday 5 October, the local Bay of Plenty community had to wait five days before public meetings began.
Maritime NZ director Catherine Taylor apologised for that delay. But given the publicity during that time, the community was entitled to ask why it took so long. While no-one wanted misinformation to be distributed, it's essential, especially when livelihoods and the environment are at stake, for at least something to be said, face to face, to those to whom it matters.
It would have been gratifying to see Maritime NZ learning from others' mistakes. In Christchurch post the 22 February earthquake, it took 11 days before face-to-face street-corner meetings with communities began.
This is a failure on the part of all involved. There are plenty of resources available - both Maritime NZ and Civil Defence Emergency Management had plenty of offers for assistance from around the country. So why so slow?
One of the first lessons of crisis management is to respond, to fill the vacuum before someone else fills it for you, maybe with incorrect information, rumour and speculation.
One of the best ways to communicate is face-to-face and when it's a community based crisis, as both the above examples are, getting out onto the street corners and into local halls is essential.
Maritime NZ also had a fantastic opportunity to harness the community's energy and motivation early on and organised for the beach clean-ups (as was later initiated). Had they acted on this straight away as the oil came ashore, they would have won huge brownie points and reduced public anger. People wanted to be part of the solution. Instead, they were made to feel impotent and frustrated which was greatly reduced once they were acknowledged and involved practically in the clean-up.
Ms Taylor has said that Maritime NZ has learned from the Rena and good for her that she fronted up and apologised for their 'tardy response.'
If we want to learn from our past year of disaster, then a study of crisis response is a good place to start:
- Fast response, even if to say 'we don't yet have a clear picture.'
- Enable two-way communication - use your stakeholders knowledge, perspectives
- Don't assume others know what you know
- Enlist external resources as support. They bring a clear and non-subjective perspective and expertise and relieve the pressure on your internal people
- Keep your communications succinct - use bullet points
- Get out into the community and engage directly, don't rely on electronic media. Use halls and street-corners, and old-fashioned posters and flyers to advertise them (as well as electronic media)
- Tailor your communication to your crisis. (In a natural disaster and power's out, don't assume people can or can't reach computers, radios or TV - use all types of media to reach out.)
- If it's an organisational crisis, talk directly to your stakeholders, and ensure you know exactly how to reach everyone important to your company, including the wider community.
- Review and practice your crisis plan. Build in as much as possible into business-as-usual processes, so that in a crisis, the response is automatic.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tsu
It can make us all feel good when someone stands up with power and charisma, is a gifted orator who tells us where he is taking us, and how he's going to turn his vision to reality. We see this all the time in politics - the charismatic leader who trumps all in the polls - think Obama, Clinton.
But it takes a lot more than charisma to make a great leader. Sure, a charismatic leader can inspire people to do their best. But when that leader goes (or is unable to deliver on the promise), the group tends to fail because everything relied on the leader, not the group.
A strong organisation needs staff who have self-belief, are empowered, and self-reliant. Charisma alone won't deliver.
Those leaders who engender staff reliance on their leaders' ability alone to steer the ship through, are setting the organisation up for failure. When they leave, there is a yawning chasm. Staff feel disempowered because their identity and sense of self-worth relied on the CEO rather than themselves and the group dynamic fails.
What makes an effective leader is the ability to empower through delegation, to inspire through example, and to communicate the vision and direction for all to follow. Achieving this can be through coaching, directing, supporting and delegating - facilitating, rather than controlling.
Lao Tsu had it right - when you can get to that stage of having people achieve what you want, and saying they did it themselves, you are a leader.
New Zealand's Speaker of the House, a seemingly rational sort of man, went overboard this week when he banned the country's biggest newspaper from Parliament because of a photo.
On Wednesday, a man, clearly with issues, tried to leap from the public gallery into the House below. Had he made it, he would have injured himself and probably Members of Parliament. He was stopped by security guards and members of the public.
An enterprising journalist took a photo of the incident. The TV footage didn't show anything except the MPs' reactions because Standing Orders allow only MPs who are on their feet and speaking to be shown. The Speaker, Lockwood Smith, decided that because the Herald published that photo, all Herald journalists would be banned from working within the precincts of Parliament for 10 days.
After an outcry, he backed off a bit by allowing the journalists access to their office, but has still restricted their movements around Parliament.
This is just plainly ridiculous. Surely it is news when someone tries to breach security and apparently harm our elected representatives? What if it had been a step further and an attempt on say, the Prime Minister's life? We should not be allowed to see any footage or photos of such an incident because of Standing Orders???
This is news and in the public interest. Standing Orders has nothing to do with it in this case. It's not promoting any political party (or for that matter denigrating any political party). That's the reason for these Standing Orders. No more, no less.
Mr Smith, you need to back off. This is a democracy and we still have freedom of the press. You do not have the right to muzzle our media and prevent them from doing their job - elections or no. It's quite beyond belief and hasn't been heard of since Rob Muldoon's iron fist ruled and Tom Scott bore the brunt of his ire.
Surely we've grown up since then? Mr Smith needs to swallow his pride and rescind his decision, admitting that in fact he has it wrong.
Following a conversaton yesterday, I want to put my two cents worth towards trying to change a perception that seems to prevail,not only with the wider business community, but even (sad to say) within my own profession.
A finance man told me his perception of PR and communications is "just communicating key messages." Right - that said, I want to know why this perception is around.
Communications is about maintaining and protecting repuation and therefore, brand. It involves a lot of services, like media, investor and community relations, web and social media, writing corporate documents - these are all simply tools of the trade. Issues and crisis management is different - this is about ensuring organisations don't get into trouble and if they do, getting them out of it.
And this is the crux of the matter. Organisations get into trouble usually because they make decisions in a vacuum, without understanding how those decisions will impact on others inside and outside their business. That's the comms role - to advise how decisions will be received, and how to achieve the same result in a different way to avoid trouble.
That means strategic thinking and a wide and deep knowledge of business and of stakeholders. It also means comms being at the top table, and an integral part of the decision-making. This isn't to say that decisions that might have an adverse impact on stakeholders can't be made. It means that the communication's expert can devise the best way to take the action to minimise adverse impact and then, and only then, the best way to let people know about it and help them understand the situation. That's where your key messages come into play.
As to yesterday's conversation - as a finance man, I bet he wouldn't like being labelled as just a bean counter. Neither are PR and comms specialists message bearers.