Public Relations: PR advice needed for thorny problems

This is an occasional series by Richard E. Rotman on the new role of public relations in the marketing mix.Richard E. Rotman, former publisher of Toronto arts weekly Metropolis, is an independent public relations counsel and a consultant to Showcase Television.Public...

This is an occasional series by Richard E. Rotman on the new role of public relations in the marketing mix.

Richard E. Rotman, former publisher of Toronto arts weekly Metropolis, is an independent public relations counsel and a consultant to Showcase Television.

Public relations practitioners often are bothered that they appear to be foul- not fair-weathered friends of senior management.

This is especially so at times of crisis.

All of a sudden, the corporate treasury’s spigots open full blast, ordinary public relations budgets blown away.

Somehow, what might have been prevented by some prudent investments in media relations or research becomes a gigantic battle against an inquiring media, sometimes for days on end, until the storm passes.

But managements continue to believe that public relations is the fix-it after the fact, rather than a preventative technique to avoid problems.

Rarely a day goes by when some incredible corporate or governmental gaffe occurs that seems so stupid – and, yet, in hindsight, is so preventable.

The historian Barbara Tuchman wrote an entire book about The March of Folly, really dumb events in the past that seem so appallingly wasteful that even the ordinary person on the street should have been able to prevent them – the First World War, Viet Nam, the usual stuff.

Here in Canada, there are nagging public relations problems that test this theory. They are in the news every day and don’t seem to go away. One looks at them and wonders: ‘How did they get into that mess?’

The following is a description of some of the thorniest ones, with a call for suggestions on means of combating negative public perceptions associated with them.

The best ones will be published, as a form of free advice, for those involved in the difficulties.

1. After almost five years in office, your candidate is well-liked, and even well-respected for his intellect.

One opponent is nearly invisible, and the other is bright, but appears out of touch with the prevailing political trends, especially at the national level.

The public, however, is flocking toward the invisible candidate, without much knowledge of her positions on any subject.

An important magazine schedules a cover story, reaching a potential swing audience and splashes your candidate’s face all over it with the headline ‘Toast.’

What do you do or say to combat a perception that the ‘fat lady’ has truly sung her final note?

2. Your company is a fixture in nearly every home.

It is associated with some of the world’s most prestigious media and entertainment organizations; in fact, many people believe that this company actually produces these programs, even though the company’s primary function is to carry this information, rather than create it.

The government wants those who buy your company’s services to be exposed to the creative works of this century.

You know that inside the public’s mind is a visceral dislike of the company – for continuing unregulated rate increases and providing a service for a monthly fee that once was free over the air.

To sell a new package of programming, your company devises a scheme that the public hates. What now? Is there a way of turning around perceptions for a gaffe that will live on in history and the public’s mind?

3. Although you are in a health-related business, a substantial portion of your sales – and that of numerous small independent businesses – relies on a product that by any stretch of the imagination is harmful.

It isn’t illegal, but it is so clearly bad for the body that its package carries a legally required health warning.

The provincial government decides, in a paroxysm of Alice in Wonderland logic, that your business should not sell this product, even though it is readily available in dozens of other retail outlets, many of which are near yours.

Whatever you may think of the product, its sales and those of many other items derived from the traffic it generates will plummet.

The challenge: how to remain clear on a commitment to public health while maintaining a viable business. Also, how to support sales of the product, without supporting the product.

All of these problems are daunting, and may, in fact, be impervious to solutions only involving public relations – though suggestions are welcome.

More than anything, they represent the absolute need to consider the implications of problems long before they become crises, and to listen to those who consider the future and its consequences.

To suggest additional tough public relations problems, or comment on these, write Richard Rotman c/o Strategy, or by Internet: drama@showcase.ca.