The PR firm I founded and lead, Volterra Communications, helps people and companies improve, build, and protect their reputations—something we consider the most important asset for a thriving company. Our mission sounds simple, yet I’m still not sure people really understand what PR is. During a crisis or product release, companies lean on us for their day-to-day operations. But our services go way beyond these important occasions. Our processes are contextual and complex. It’s almost as if we never do the same job twice. Based on my decades of experience in the industry, here’s a further understanding of PR and why it’s so important for companies and boards alike.
The Old Days of PR
PR professionals used to be the protectors and keepers of a company’s brand and all the language and imagery around that. Though they weren’t always directly involved with company projects, they maintained constant engagement with marketing and other internal teams to make sure that these projects, whether ad campaigns, events, product launches or something else, aligned with the company’s brand and overall message. Primarily that was through the use of press releases. And PR’s job, then, was to get those press releases picked up by the media.
The Current Environment
Now, PR is more about being a great storyteller and building relationships with the media. We are still media spokespersons like before, but now we’re playing defensively. We’re guarding the company’s reputation and actually coaching the C-suite on media do’s and don’ts. The most apparent reason for this shift between the traditional PR approach and its modern counterpart is this: Everyone is a reporter nowadays. With the inundation of social media, the “power of the pen” has been transferred from news corporations into the hands of consumers, everyday citizens and “influencers.”
Most broadcast news networks don’t use professional cameramen any longer. In fact, it is not unusual to have people’s cell phone videos tell the story. It is much harder to control that story or message because the viewer is seeing one perspective and often getting narration from the person recording who has little idea what they are actually documenting.
I can tell you from experience that once, before I even arrived at a crisis, someone driving by had recorded a spectacular, eye-catching aspect of the disaster and sent it not only to traditional news media, but to every social media outlet with their own take: “praying for the employees” or “dangerous working conditions.” When somebody else, and usually someone unrelated to the company, tells the story—we lose control and risk the spread of misinformation. It’s a difficult and strategic process to control that message, and relationships are more important than ever in order to handle those stories.
However, social media has its advantages, since press releases have practically gone the way of the dinosaur. You can go directly to the consumer, directly to the investors, without putting a press release out on the wire and hoping a media outlet picks it up.
Bad PR Leads to Bad Outcomes: Some Examples
1. Vencor Inc. was the largest long-term care hospital and nursing home company in the United States, operating in 46 states. One day, I got a call from a concerned legislator who’d heard stories of Vencor planning to kick out all of its low-income residents and essentially putting them out on the street.
I thought to myself, “Well, that can’t possibly be true. We wouldn’t do that.” I talked with the Vencor CEO and he confirmed this tragic news: The company wanted to switch to private pay and get all the low-income folks out of there.
I gave him standard PR advice: Have a town hall meeting, get the families involved, and make sure that you find nursing homes in the area within driving distance so the families don’t have to go out of their way to visit their loved ones..
Unfortunately, my advice was ignored. The morning of the eviction, the media grabbed the story and took photos of old people in their wheelchairs out on the sidewalk. Vencor stock went from $40/share to $20/share seemingly overnight. In the next six months, it went down to pennies, and went bankrupt. That’s bad, clearly. And if somebody in communications or PR had been at the table when those decisions were made, it could have been a much different outcome.
2. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, caused by British Petroleum in April 2010, is widely regarded as one of the largest environmental disasters in American history. Due to an explosion, an estimated 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and caused hugely detrimental effects to the environment and the economy. Eleven people and hundreds of thousands of marine animals died, including endangered and protected species. Fishing businesses were lost; homes were lost. It was absolutely devastating.
BP brought forth its then-CEO, Tony Hayward, to function as the spokesperson for the incident. He did well until one day, after long hours I would imagine, he said in an interview, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” That was the news that day, and probably for at least the rest of the week. Among the destruction caused and lives lost, Hayward vocalized his own frustration and exhaustion.
How would a PR person have helped in that situation? We know how the media works, and we know that only people with media training should speak in front of cameras. When you get PR involved in the beginning of a crisis, we supply you with talking points. Hayward’s team could have better prepared his talking points so that if somebody asked how he was feeling, his answer would be along the lines of, “It’s not important how I feel. Our focus here today is to get the economy of the Gulf Coast back up and running.”
Good PR Leads to Good Outcomes: Some Examples
1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge promoted awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The challenge encouraged people to be filmed pouring a bucket of ice water on their heads, donate to ALS research, nominate others to do the same, and post it on social media. The Ice Bucket Challenge went viral in summer 2014. It was spontaneous; it was a hit. It was also a great example of how social media is integrated into the PR environment. The awareness raised hundreds of millions of dollars and captured the attention of both celebrities and the average “Joe.”
2. Other PR initiatives may not require as much social maneuvering. In 2017, on the day before International Women’s Day, an asset management company called State Street Global Advisors erected a statue of a 4-foot-tall girl on Broadway in Manhattan. The since-relocated statue provided a symbolic statement of female empowerment and women in leadership roles. The PR behind the scenes was silent; there was no press release, report, or mention of the women behind the organization, just a very simple and boldly placed statue.
Yet it still went viral with wide-ranging coverage—from other artists disliking the statue’s placement and seeking legal action, to the community petitioning the statue to reside on Broadway permanently.
The role of a PR company is more vital than ever before. As companies become increasingly bolder with their mission statements, it’s important to involve PR from the beginning or as soon as possible. As I mentioned in my last article, buying PR is like buying car insurance: Don’t seek it urgently after an issue arises, when it’s too late to be strategic. PR professionals should be integrated into your management team so that every project, every leadership change, every merger or acquisition or exciting announcement is put together with forethought, ensuring your message is communicated in a way that builds, improves and protects your company reputation and your brand.
Here are three takeaways on how to have a healthy and productive relationship with your PR professional:
1. Start early: Involve a PR firm as early as possible, so you’re always ready for what’s to come. Make sure they are at the table both inside the company and in the Boardroom.
2. Be consistent: Make sure that you are all speaking with one voice. That doesn’t mean having one spokesperson, but making sure that your message is consistent, articulate, and clear.
3. Be transparent: Each company has its own unique culture and branding. To avoid having a negative or even damaging PR outcome, openly and honestly communicate with all your stakeholders: the consumer experience, the investor concerns, the government regulators, the media inquiries. And don’t forget your employees.
With an experienced PR professional by your side and a proactive approach, you can take charge of your brand and your company reputation—and maybe even go viral for all the right reasons.
Patty Deutsche is CEO and founder of Volterra Communications LLC, a communications consulting firm. She has created and implemented strategic plans for clients including Fortune 100 companies, elected officials, non-profits, and more.