PR sometimes gets a bad rap for being a spin cycle. I like to look at it a different way. Public relations, like all communications disciplines, has been marked by standards, strategies and tactics that roll along and change over time. Sometimes they even spin full circle, taking us on circuitous detours on the way to ending up back where we were.
But that revolution is changing: With new rules of engagement between journalist, publicist and marketer, and given the tone that things are taking these days, it’s looking unlikely that we’ll ever roll back into the congenial place where we once were.
A case in point was business columnist Lucy Kellaway’s Financial Times piece titled “An Old-School Reply to an Advertiser’s Retro Threat.” It goes to show how far the public relations industry has gone—a corporate henchman’s thinly veiled threats, a tactic that wasn’t that unusual a couple of decades ago, now stands out as weird, jarring and wrong. “The most popular way of dealing with tiresome journalists or with conflict of any sort is silence,” writes Kellaway. “Business has gone entirely passive aggressive.”
That was her own first response when Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s head of marketing and communications, Henry Gomez, sent her an email saying that he was “disappointed” with a column Kellaway wrote that mentioned a fairly boneheaded comment Meg Whitman made at Davos and warning that “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.” Her instinct: sending him her own passive-aggressive email in which she thanked him for writing.
Then, noting her sadness at realizing that “[t]he outlawing of overt conflict at work and the replacing of it with silence and passive aggression is not a good thing,” she wrote the response that most journalists would really like to write, calling out him (or Whitman, if the directive came from her) for making threats. What should have been a non-story—Whitman’s Davos comment just wasn’t that interesting—blew up in marketing and communications circles, ensuring bad PR for HP and the email’s failure to, in Kellaway’s words, “make the company look good in the eyes of the media and of the world.”
And that’s the other big evolution in the world of PR. In this age of radical transparency and “everything communicates,” you need to always remember that what goes around comes around. And around and around. What might have once been a private argument caught the attention of readers and commenters from around the world.
Years ago, an ad agency pitched to an airline that most of its team flew. They were cooking along until a fairly senior colleague got into a snit with the carrier, and she used agency letterhead to blast some department head. It trickled up and down the airline until it landed in the hands of a member of the agency review committee. Maybe that agency lost the account fair and square, but the lesson is unforgettable: You never know who you ever know.
In 2016, that sort of misstep plays out not just within organizations but also throughout the industry. People who never would have thought about it weighed in with opinions, like these two comments to Kellaway’s story:
Henry Gomez seems [to] add an insult to an injury, and argues in professional magazines that his sentence did not constitute a threat… Henry my boy—this is way beyond any plausible deniability. Your job is not to convince your PR peers that you did not screw up, it is to avoid HP looking stupid.”
“Perhaps it’s time for me to ditch HP products and move on to the better alternatives!”
Within a few hours, the responses had gone from critical to schadenfreude to a distinct intention of taking one’s business elsewhere. Clearly, strong-arming never works, but in this era, it’s a sure route to goodwill disaster. The rules of engagement have never mattered more.
Nothing is truly private any longer—not your complaints, not even your outbursts (and we all have meltdowns every now and then). Although the HP/Kellaway example seems the ultimate slapdown of our time, here’s an example from an ad agency where I once worked. A trade publication was reporting on our loss of tens of millions of dollars in revenue. I sputtered that the account was worth a fraction of what the journalist insisted we had claimed it was worth when we announced the business win. Said a savvy administrative assistant who worked with me, with a sad smile: “Stuffed on our own petard.”
In this age of no boundaries, no privacy, everything communicates and everyone-needs-to-think-and-chew-on-their-words-before-they-speak, ponder what you’re going to be stuffed with.