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The Truth About PR Disasters
A cautionary tale for practitioners and their clients.
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 by Gerry McCusker
Talespin: PR Disasters

Gerry McCuskerIt used to be the case that specialist crisis public relations consultants were employed and deployed by corporates and government agencies to manage any disastrous PR (more accurately, damning media coverage) that accompanied client malpractice or scandal.

Now, public relations consultants themselves are increasingly being 'outed' as the perpetrators of the catastrophic errors of judgment and ethics that create or catalyze PR disasters.

Just recently we had a UK PR guru having to pay six-figure damages against a former Tory MP for slander, while one of the USA's leading PR agencies, Ketchum, was embroiled in a 'cash for comment' scandal, which revealed that they'd paid a media 'shill' $250,000 to talk up a government-led education initiative. Bafflingly - for supposed PR specialists - Ketchum flatly denied any impropriety, yet eventually admitted the error of their payola ways when intrusive media attention refused to go away.

Even a quick Internet sniff around the world's top 10 PR firms suggests that around half of them have been variously linked to supposed PR disasters; one firm manufactured evidence to support America's need to get involved in 
Gulf War 1, while another created and bankrolled a fake 'grassroots' lobby group to try to influence US government decision making.

If it's true that 50%-plus of the world's top PR companies have been linked to shady PR practice, there's unfortunately little deterrent to dissuade errant practitioners from straying from the straight and narrow. Little, except negative media coverage, that is.

While official PR bodies try to police the behaviour of their members, it's thought that as few as one in seven PR practitioners are affiliated to membership organizations. In other words, for every one who plays by some set of rules, there could be six others who're not governed at all.

But the problem of the PR disaster isn't exclusive to PR practice. The plain truth is that PR disasters can crop up from almost any facet of business or private life and, especially when they're accidental, they're notoriously difficult to anticipate or prevent.

So for those looking to steer clear of any possible PR crisis, the following list outlines the principal categories that the PR disaster can spring from:

Acts of God. Even when natural disasters - such as a Tsunami - cause unforeseeable real life crises (and even if no-one was directly responsible for the incident) pockets of the media frequently describe how it's a PR disaster of some sort; for tourism or even for the governments of the countries involved.

Business Operations. This is where corporate activity adversely impacts on stakeholder groups, such as when Coca Cola and Pepsi had to defend themselves in India against allegations that their soft drinks contained excess levels of toxins. From a PR disaster viewpoint, both companies managed to fan the flames or discontent, rather than calm matters down.

Corporate Moves. Around the time of acquisitions, mergers or takeovers, there's plenty of room for dissatisfaction and even scandal, such as when a London PR man found himself rumbled, tried and prosecuted after indulging in a bit of insider trading. This happened after a client had confidentially told him of its plan to take over a competitor organization.

Legalities. When contentious issues are debated in court, then reported in the media - such as in the notorious McDonald's 'McLibel' case - the potential for PR disasters is massive. Media watchers labeled this case 'the world's biggest corporate PR disaster'.

Rumours. Gossip can be highly damaging for brand reputation, as Procter & Gamble found when malicious rumours of Satanism - in part propagated by a P&G competitor - dogged the company for decades, forcing a worldwide logo redesign and extensive counter PR efforts.

Staff. When New York's Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, staff at one of the city's Starbucks charged rescue workers for bottled water they needed to treat victims of the attack. When word got out 'virally' about this incident, the PR fallout was highly damaging.

Scandal. Financial or sexual shenanigans generally capture the media's attention, such as when basketball star Kobe Bryant faced allegations of sexual assault. 'PR disaster' the media screamed, as Bryant's lucrative sponsorship deals and image as an all-round good guy were jeopardised.

The Disaster Combustibles

As someone who has around 20 years experience in PR, I'm always in a perpetual state of disbelief over the repetitive mistakes that lead to PR disasters. But then I remember why the disaster phenomenon is unlikely to go away:

There's a combustible mix of malpractice (by clients and PRO's), misjudgment (by PR people) and also the media's own insatiable hunger for stories with negative or 'disastrous' editorial content; these are the ingredients for a surefire PR crisis.

But should you find your client - or yourself - involved in a PR disaster always manage the situation ethically, with good grace, humility or humour - at least that's a good foundation on which to rebuild any damage done by a PR disaster.

Gerry McCusker 2005
Talespin: PR Disasters is published by Kogan Page, January 2005.

Gerry McCusker, author of Talespin: Public Relations Disasters has over 20 years, hands-on PR experience. In addition, he has taught PR at GCU, Glasgow and has published academic research into brand identity.

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