Random PR Thoughts

“Our Plant in Peoria Just Blew Up. Fire the PR Team.”



I try not to stray into politics in this blog, but I feel compelled to comment on something I read in the New York Times yesterday.

Evidently, President Trump has been blaming his travails on bad PR. If his PR team were not incompetent, none of the many swirling controversies dogging his administration would have come to anything.

I have seen this before. I have worked with a number of companies whose leaders honestly seemed to believe that their problem wasn’t the plant explosion or the funny-money accounting or the CEO’s girlfriend. The problem was the media coverage. Therefore, it’s all the PR team’s fault. Off with their heads!

One of my favorite examples of this syndrome occurred early in my agency career. At the time, I was with Hill & Knowlton, and I had the Business Development Agency of the City of Corpus Christi, TX as a client. Shortly after we won the business, I went down for a visit with the VP of Business Development to discuss their objectives and to meet the local big shots.

At the end of the day’s meetings, the VP of Business Development kindly drove me out to the airport. As we drove through the city of Corpus Christi, I noticed that all the vegetation had a brownish tinge and I asked if it was always that way. No, said the VP, we just need a little rain. Nothing to worry about.

A week later, the New York Times ran a front-page story about the terrible drought in Corpus Christi. I was summoned to Texas. As I pulled up to City Hall, I saw workers at the big hotel across the street spraying some kind of fertilizer on the grass. Only there was no grass. And it wasn’t fertilizer. It was green paint. The whole city was being sprayed with green paint.

I was ushered in to meet the city manager, a burly no-nonsense type. Before I could even sit down, he waved the offending New York Times story under my nose and screamed – and I mean screamed: “YOU’RE FROM HILL AND KNOWLTON. WE PICKED YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE THE BIGGEST PR FIRM IN THE WORLD. HOW COULD YOU LET THIS GODDAM STORY HAPPEN?”

I stammered. “Well, er… you see…um…” I toyed with the idea of asking, “How could you let the goddam drought happen?” but thought better of it. We’d only been on the case for a couple of weeks and they hadn’t had a chance to get used to my sense of humor.

He trained his steely eyes on me and shouted, “YOU’RE ON THIN ICE, MISTER! We just had a pool and spa convention cancel. They are going to San Diego. SAN DIEGO! We haven’t had a single company call about relocating here since we hired you. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?“

I glanced out the window at the workers with their spray-can backpacks putting the finishing touches on the park at City Hall. “Let me get back to you.”

Another time, our team met with a prospect (the head of PR) who informed us that the Wall Street Journal was going to publish a devastating story about his company…the very next day. The prospect wanted to know what we could do to get the story spiked. Although he had pointed out to his (soon to be ex-) bosses that the story was for the most part true, rather than deal with actual problem, they were only interested in killing the story. But they were too cheap to bring in an agency when it might have done some good. I got the feeling the PR person was visiting us in secret and was willing to pay the agency out of his own pocket. We couldn’t help him.

Regardless of how you feel about Sean Spicer and his team, you have to feel a little bit sorry for the crappy situations into which they are put so often by their boss. As I said in my recent blog about United Airlines, “You can’t spin your way out of something you behaved your way into.”

It’s a lesson I doubt President Trump will ever learn. But he’s in good company.

Categories: Random PR Thoughts

5 replies »

  1. Couldn’t agree more Chris. I have at times agreed to PR something below my own standards – but only when I agreed that “another side of the story” deserved to be heard. PRs who lie, and audiences who blindly accept, are made for each other but it’s a toxic union.

  2. Hi Chris. I feel a certain amount of empathy with Spicer et al, as I’ve taken comms consultancy jobs where I’ve had to be the interlocutor for policies and strategies that were deeply unpopular.

    I’ve worked across the post soviet region and MENA, providing comms advice designed to help drive international capital into Moscow, Almaty, Riyadh and Dubai.

    The thing is, I went in with my eyes open. I knew that there would be situations where my clients would say / do thing that defied plausible deniability or explanation.

    This is why I don’t feel sorry for the comms team around POTUS. They knew what they were getting into. Empathy, yes, but if that’s not the situation you want to be in, don’t put yourself forward.

    It’s a decision I made – it was time to go “straight”, move inhouse at a “normal” oil trading company and take a break from the inherent challenges of emerging markets.

  3. THANK YOU Chris! I have the Tweet hanging above my desk from The Newsroom – “You have a PR problem because you have an actual problem.” Many a time I have had to reference it! Thank you for sharing your story.

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