When PR Comes Skidding Round the Curve

The difference between public relations and publicity was spelled out in all the headlines and on all the news shows this past week. We didn’t see the wrecked cars, the treadmarks on the road, or the destroyed lives. But we did see an astonishing display of incompetence as Ford and Firestone, two international icons, squandered their brand equity in a flood of publicity.

But First a Story You Didn’t Read

Pat Mooney, director of marketing for Goinvest.com, down in Santa Monica, ran a classified ad for a public relations director. This web-based investment research service has been looking for someone to handle publicity chores, media, writing, and placements. Requirements? “…1-2 years of public relations communications experience and proficiency in MS Word.” This is an ambitious young company that’s organizing for publicity. So why is it advertising for a minimally experienced PR director instead of a publicist?

Look at Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford

For the past month, these two megacorps have gotten plenty of publicity, pretty much all of it negative. To mobilize public support, they need a lot more than TV spots showing sincere-looking CEO Jac Nasser with a good suit, unique accent, and rehearsed gestures. In light of Ford’s massive recalls this week – and Firestone’s denial of responsibility for the bulk of Ford Explorer rollovers – where is the intelligence and forthrightness driving this public communications effort?

Looks like Firestone is asking itself the same questions. Last week, Bridgestone/Firestone hired a new public relations firm – Ketchum – to take over the reins from Fleishman-Hillard, which has been on the case since the August 9 recall. Good luck to Dave Drobis, CEO of Ketchum, but this is flat out not a public relations issue. Besides, once an election year congressional committee is involved, it’s a bit late to switch PR agencies.

PR execs could have – and may well have – counseled management to step forward immediately with candid statements and honest disclosures, expressing willingness to do the right thing. There have been similar disasters before – Jack in the Box and Tylenol come to mind immediately – where swift acknowledgement helped turn the tide of public opinion. Now it seems there are not only physical defects in the products of Ford and Firestone, but unwillingness to shoulder responsibility at the highest corporate level.

For Ford and Firestone it’s not a question of public relations but public perception. Did these guys sell us faulty trucks? Has Firestone had a persistent problem with tread separation on these tires? Was there a cover-up? Fix those problems first before turning the PR folks loose to smooth and confuse the issues.

Our concern here is not with Ford or Firestone. Our concern is with the business enterprise, like Goinvest.com, that needs to sort out its PR options in these uneasy times.

And These Are Uneasy Times

David Needle, bureau chief for SiliconValley.internet.com has covered high tech in Silicon Valley for the past 15 years. He sees lots of evidence of weakness in the “dot-conomy.” “The wacky business plans that were getting funded just aren’t passing muster anymore. And there’s clearly a lot of consolidation going on.” (Part of that consolidation last week brought ClickZ and Silicon Valley Internet.com under the same internet.com corporate banner.)

Bummer. We barely settled into the good flush easy money times when the whole cycle starts slithering down the precipice. The Nasdaq tanked, and “Jaws” became the soundtrack for the Dow Jones. With the Market softening, initial public offerings (IPOs) dried up in the past quarter, goosing unemployment a bit as companies consolidate. The sky is falling? Not yet. But it’s definitely time to think lean and smart.

Defining and Using PR Services Now

Before recruiting PR support – agency or staff – there are two things I’d square away before starting the search. First, I’d determine whether I needed publicity or full-blown public relations support and then I’d figure out how to deploy it.

To be effective, PR has to be integrated into the mix of corporate and marketing communications (MARCOM) services – sometimes, as Harold Burson, founder of Burson-Marsteller, says, “as the corporate conscience.” Sometimes PR is the strategic driver of a program generating basic positioning statements and communications strategies. But most often, it is PR’s publicity function that is called on to support corporate or marketing programs. Each role has a different price tag.

If you’re saying PR agency when you’re thinking publicity, you could be wasting budget on unnecessary bandwidth. Why hire a media department, an executive and administrative group, consultants, an account management team, plus accounting departments and janitorial services, when all you need is a hardworking, experienced publicist?

Too often other silos of MARCOM technology – media, email, advertising creative, and market research – work closely together while publicity stands as an unequal partner, PR’s bad-mannered working-class relative. It’s a myth we need to drop. Uneasy times mean all MARCOM resources need to be fully combined as a single integrated capability.

And as for Goinvest.com? After a couple of months looking at $125K-plus PR directors, it located its top choice, right in its $50K to $75K range, and is in the process of snapping her up. They have publicity work to do. Chances are, for right now, they may not need PR at all. Who are they anyhow? Ford? Firestone?

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.