I have a healthy respect for good public relations. In fact, I consider PR to be one of the crucial legs of my multi-legged stool which supports being “in parallel” with the publics of any business, large or small: employees, shareholders, customers, vendors, and other stakeholders. To me, when all these parties work together, a more promising result always occurs for everyone.That’s why a series of recent snafus in government and business has me puzzled. Where were all the smart PR folks when these half-baked programs and ideas were being cooked up?
The AIG bogus “bonus” issue is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many others where, in my opinion, government and business have turned what could have been a PR victory into a stunning defeat.
The Power of Parallel
For readers of my books, you’ll know I’ve written frequently about the power of parallel, so I won’t bore you with more of the same. Instead, let me return to the premise of this piece – good public relations – and my bewilderment over the multifaceted fallout from the government’s effort to right our foundering ship of state.
Let me first define my terms.
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) states “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” According to the PRSA, the essential functions of public relations include research, planning, communications dialogue and evaluation.”
“Publics,” in this definition, means everyone an organization touches. In other words, all those groups I just mentioned in the first paragraph. And it’s just as operative if your “business” is the US government or the software designer in Silicon Valley. But the key provision here is this business of research and communications dialogue.
In this regard, a savvy PR person is like a counterpart in the legal profession: The PR pro anticipates outcomes of corporate (or governmental) agendas much as an attorney anticipates future legal problems. Both take preemptive actions to head off problems before they arise.
And I don’t mean a public relations “spin” whereby perpetrators cherry-pick the facts and present a disingenuous, deceptive and manipulated version of reality. I mean the truth along with honest, transparent research and dialogue with publics to reach a desired end.
Any PR conscious person in government or in business (especially those businesses involved in the great credit crunch bailout) knew (or should have known) that, since the recession is throwing millions of Americans out of work, and worse, out of their foreclosed homes, words like “government bailout” and “million dollar bonuses” would serve no good but to enrage the populace. So instead of trotting out governmental programs clothed in these inflamatory words, lay the groundwork for change, a step at a time, using the language best-suited to the result you want to obtain.
They could, for example, take a tip from real estate developers or major retailers like Wal-Mart or Target. When Wal-Mart seeks to open a store in a new community, it knows it may face local opposition. And it has a plan, a procedure and a workforce dedicated to easing that opposition. And these folks are intensive in their efforts even years before the first spade of dirt is turned.
They have learned a couple of lessons: First, the American public does not like surprises. So don’t force any down their throat. I know we’re in a recession, but good communications come first.
Second, The American public, as well as company employees, are totally amazing in their ability to accept change – even painful change – when they are invited to share in the problem, and offer input in a range of potential solutions. But when a CEO, a department manager, or a president unilaterally hurls a troublesome solution to a problem that affects their welfare, they will likely rebel.
If there is a lesson to be learned in the AIG fiasco, and actually there are many lessons to learn from this mess, it’s that when we think and act in parallel with all interested parties, we will ultimately be more successful. And that means being truthful and transparent in our policy formation, and invite the participation of our important publics before a decision is made. Because when we don’t, we can expect a needless brouhaha like such as the one AIG is suffering. There is a simple rule to dealing with issues, challenges and changes: Keep everyone in the loop.