Friday, October 28, 2011

Too soon to tell: The textscape of crisis

On October 25, the Tri-State District of PRSA held a "mock trial tribunal" at the SUNY Global Center in New York City. With the perspective of more than a year after the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, the topic of the event was the PR "successes . . . . achieved and mistakes . . . made" in order to help PR practitioners' future crisis communications work.

The panel was impressive and thoughtful -- much better than many comparable events: Paul (typically irascible) Holmes from The Holmes Report; Ben Cohen from Conclave Strategic Communications, Michael Schubert from Ruder Finn, David Kalson from Ricochet PR, and Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz of the Boswell Group. The audience was mostly young -- as typically found in these professional development/networking events.

The informal audience poll at the beginning of the evening was the most telling moment. The vast majority of the audience thought the oil spill was a PR disaster (surprise). That opinion, combined with much of the following discussion, revealed some striking things about PR people and the practice of PR.

1. For all the criticism communicators give to financial/corporate types about being short-term oriented, PR people are often staggeringly short-term and narrowly focused. (It's as if last night's headlines on Fox/MSNBC "matter.") The discussion revolved around the BP oil spill as a series of media relations blunders that provoked negative headlines. (All true. All blindingly obvious from which we learn almost nothing.) The audience and some of the panel (all PR people) fixated on those headlines from spring/summer 2010. As if the story ended there.

2. Most of the audience (again, all PR people) were not aware of: The Guardian (no friend to Big Energy) reported that same day that "BP profit rise marks turning point." On October 28th Marketwatch's "Sentiment on BP" indicates strongly Bullish from both Analysts and the Marketwatch Community (though slightly Bearish from Hulbert Interactive/investment newsletters). As panelist, Michael Schubert noted: just google BP and do a content analysis of the messages/memes that come up on the top pages.

3. When PR people reflect back on events such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP incident, you can barely breathe for the smugness in the room. Maybe it's an occupational hazard, but a PR person so often seems to work hardest when he is demonstrating that he is the smartest person in the room. You would've thought, last Tuesday night, that the 200 people in the room were communications geniuses who could never have been so shallow, unprofessional, and clueless as to have made any of the decisions made by the BP people at the time. The analysis and the audience (and rarely in such PR conclaves) did not approach the topic dispassionately and impersonally. If you can't approach the topic dispassionately and impersonally after 18 months of data/facts to observe and un-pressured reflection, then when can you?

It's hard to approach PR with research, analytical rigor if scoring points is a large part of the agenda (and I'm not just reflecting on one panel discussion). And how about considering what it must actually be like to walk that mile in somebody else's shoes? Not to give somebody else a break -- but not to give yourself too much of one.

Some organizations have an epic fail to which their public communications contribute. But so many organizations have shown the remarkable ability to rehabilitate themselves (although the record isn't nearly so good for individual executives). The facts -- 18 months out -- don't clearly argue that BP is down for the count. And I wouldn't count out Bank of America either, despite recent headlines. PR people should not underestimate the lasting power of big organizations and the malleability of public opinion (otherwise, who in the U.S. would buy a German or Japanese car or coffee grinder?).

Finally, PR researchers need to cut through "the PR" and look at enduring patterns of verifiable facts. We're in business for the long(-ish) term.

-- 2 footnotes

Kerry Sulkowicz from the Boswell Group provided one welcome piece of advice not routine in the crisis communications handbooks: Sometimes, don't immediately do or say anything. Stop and think/reflect. A crisis is not the time for Ready, Fire, Aim. (My words, not his.)

The event was put together by Emmanuel Tchividjian -- a sometimes lone (and all the more valued) voice for both common sense and ethical perspective in PR.