All Public Relations Professionals Deal with Stress on Three Levels.
By Thomas J. Roach
A recent survey claimed that fighter pilot is the most stressful occupation. Number two on the list is public relations practitioner. If it were possible to rank all the fields in which public relations is practiced, working for quarries would be near the top, right under working for oil companies and Texas politicians.
All public relations professionals deal with stress on three levels. We have the stress everyone else has over making personnel decisions, prioritizing work, and dealing with difficult people. Next we have the stress that comes with writing and publishing – like meeting deadlines and wondering how thousands of people will react to a story. But at the highest level we have the stress that comes with issues of reputation.
For example, your golf pro client has a little altercation with his wife and does some damage to a fire hydrant with his SUV. Or your presidential candidate announces on national television that he is going to cut three federal programs then can’t remember which ones and starts guessing.
I was on retainer for a large bank, and one morning their public relations vice-president called and said they lost a data tape with the personal financial information of two million customers. Eventually they would have to tell them their accounts had been compromised. He wanted to know if I thought they should announce it or keep looking. “Okay,” I said. “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you in a couple days.”
I mulled it over between classes. “If they announce they lost the data tape and then find it, the damage to their reputation is almost the same as if they announce it and don’t find it: they seem dangerously unreliable. So, they have nothing to lose if they wait and keep looking. But, if a reporter finds out and breaks the story, then the bank looks unreliable for losing the information, and worse, they look insensitive for not immediately alerting customers and dishonest for seemingly trying to cover it up. They might be forgiven for losing the tape, but if they can’t be trusted...hmmm. What is the cost in terms of lost bank deposits and frightened-away loan applicants?”
The key question was: how long could they wait before a reporter found out? That night, over dinner, I wanted to tell my wife. Then it occurred to me, “If I tell her and she tells one person and that person tells one person, how long before one of the people in the chain is a reporter? Moreover, there are more than 30 people in the bank PR department, and they knew about this days before I got my call. How many people have they told? And how many other bank departments know? Yikes!”
I went to a secluded corner of the restaurant, and called my bank contact on his private number: “You have to make the announcement tomorrow. Preferably in the morning.”
The bank went to a large PR firm for a second opinion. The firm thought about it for two weeks, while I waited nervously for the cover-up story to come out. Finally, the firm got back to the bank and told them they should make the announcement, which they promptly did. A few days later the data tape turned up.
Public relations is probably also near the top of the list of thankless jobs, but most of us don’t complain because, like fighter pilots, we thrive on the stress.
Quarry operations come with a long list of possible stressful situations; most deal with reputation. Mining accidents, NIMBY groups complaining about blasting, and regulatory and governmental officials issuing fines and zoning restrictions are potential issues for everyone in the industry.
I have two recommendations for dealing with PR stress. One, be honest and forthcoming. That has been the solution to almost every communication problem in my career.
And two, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of cockpits and do public relations work for companies that blow stuff up.