More Clear vs. Less Clear

Some People Lead and Some Mislead When it Comes to Public Relations.

By Thomas J. Roach

Some public relations practitioners brag about being able to mislead, and others are proud to say they would never deliberately mislead anyone. Which side are you on?

Almost everyone in the field has superior communication skills; what separates the professionals from the others is how they choose to use those skills. The choice presents itself early in everyone’s career.

Lying is problematic if not illegal in business situations. That’s not the choice. It is more the choice between accuracy and exaggeration, politeness and flattery, sincerity and misdirection.

Professional communicators are Jedi word warriors, and they all decide at some point if they believe in the power of the bright side or the dark side of the force – to make the communication environment more clear or less clear.

Those who work in journalism and public relations or teach these subjects at universities and work with students on projects know that everyone in the field makes this choice. It produces a pattern of behavior that traces through a career and even defines whole organizations.

Universal Problem
The universal problem with making things less clear is that it creates an unstable decision-making environment. The more accurate the information, the better the choices we make.

Less accurate information may help avoid short-term problems, but companies that place survival over next quarter’s profits know they need durable, long-term relationships with their employees, customers, shareholders, neighbors, legislators, regulators and their industry.

It is not just about trust; it is about continuity and integrity and permanence.

We live in a world of information built and held together with interlocking word molecules. Just as our industry knows that stone means durability, seasoned managers and professional communicators should know that business relationships need to rest on perceptions and arguments that will not rot, shrink or rust when they are tested by changes in the environment.

The more clear vs. less clear problem is most apparent when businesses make major adjustments. Senior leadership talks about employees as part of a family, and then announces layoffs with no warning.

Changes in product quality, distribution or availability are anticipated, but not announced to customers until they are imminent. Long range plans for the quarry require expansion, but the community first learns about it from attorneys applying for a zoning variance.

At some point it may seem easier to not communicate or to mislead publics, but in the end the communication is made more difficult and the outcome is compromised as a result.

The Best Way
The best way to avoid the temptation to miscommunicate is to make long-range plans available to all four key publics. The Securities and Exchange Commission enforces guidelines that keep shareholders informed, why not apply the same standards with all publics?

Put community leaders on an advisory board and discuss expansion and building imperatives. Don’t use the employee newspaper as a marketing tool. Tell employees about the health of the company and under what circumstances layoffs would become a consideration.

Adjust financial incentives to make sales staff accountable not just for yearly sales quotas, but also for maintaining long-term relationships with customers.

On a personal level, sending direct, accurate messages is partly a matter of respect. Misleading others is an act of arrogance. A lot of problems can be avoided by reminding oneself that the smartest person in the room might just be the legislator, the journalist, the customer or the hourly employee.

PR Engages the Community

Public relations as a profession has many unique services that help an aggregates operation manage its relationships with external publics, that is, with shareholders, customers, legislators and the community.

The highest-level concern of public relations is the reputation of the company. This issue crosses public groups. Reputation is addressed in a number of ways. News stories that show the company in a positive light contribute to its positive reputation. Corporate donations and sponsorships and other demonstrations of good will support reputation as well. And on another level, reputation is established by the degree of professionalism of executives and lobbyists when they interact with other business and political leaders.

While public relations counsel works to create a good reputation, it also contributes to the positive reputation of the organization by anticipating and preventing actions that might harm its reputation.

Wise public relations professionals will never lie to or even mislead the news media or the public. Honesty is the first principle of a good reputation. This means that when a reporter contacts the public relations department about a negative story, the public relations practitioner may argue the company’s position but, in the case of a company problem, will admit guilt rather than tarnish the reputation for honest, timely communication.

Another contribution is creating a general public awareness of the organization. This is done through events, press and video news releases, and by sending representatives into the community to participate in civic events.

While issues of reputation and name recognition will always have to focus mainly on news outlets, they are also the subject of official company forays into social media. In addition to the press release, the radio interview, and the speech to the Rotary Club, the public relations department also may sponsor a Twitter account, a blog, and an interactive corporate web site.

Every crisis has a public relations component. In the event of a physical crisis, it is the public relations professional who is best able to develop and implement the communication processes required to orchestrate evacuations and relocations and to anticipate a time, location, and an agenda for addressing the news media about the crisis.

In the case of a crisis of reputation, almost everything falls under the domain of public relations professionals. They can assess a problem, project possible outcomes, and plan and implement processes to address and mitigate the issue through the news media and ultimately for all of the company’s publics. This includes developing message strategy, holding media conferences, prepping executives to address the media, and monitoring and adjusting to public feedback.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].


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