PR is the Tail of a Crisis Dog

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I read earlier this week that chicken foods giant Tyson had hired a PR firm (Fleishman-Hillard) to be its “agency of record” for crisis communication and corporate reputation. The article said it was uncommon to retain crisis help on an ongoing basis.

It’s also a misplaced focus of Tyson’s attention.

Corporate reputation isn’t the invention of PR people, and crises aren’t avoidable or fixable through PR plans or campaigns. To think otherwise is outdated and ineffective thinking.

Reputation is the result of business operations. The transparency and immediacy of the Internet means that stakeholder groups are usually quite aware of what a given company is doing (or not doing), and are going to form their opinions of those circumstances whether the company provided the insights or not. Sure, there’s a chance to provide information better, or more often, but that’s a tactical element, not a strategy.

So how exactly is a PR firm equipped to analyze and then propose things like supply chain improvements (in safety, security, and/or responsible function), minimizing product liability models (the risk/reward ratios on both new and legacy products), or strengthening HR outsourcing policies? Can PR people assess viability of doing business in particular frontier markets, or do the due diligence required to vet IP or patent portfolios? What about vendor performance profiles?

It’s company behaviors like these that are strategically relevant. How they’re spun or delivered is a minor afterthought, and any external audience that is willingly swayed in any statistically meaningful way but PR is probably not worth the investment in time and money to effect it.

And since by time a crisis hits, it’s too late to do anything about it other than minimize the pain, PR firms promise to “manage” them…offering telephone lists, procedures to follow if something bad happens in the middle of the night, pre-written company statements, etc. Maybe that’s why Tyson needs Fleishman on board all year long (to get and then keep those systems ready).

But that’s the PR tail wagging the crisis dog. A communications firm can no more manage a crisis than a plaster manufacturer promises to manage broken arms by providing excellent casts. provide plaster casts for people who break their arms. They key is to do the analysis to identify potential risks and then possess the board-level authority to successfully argue for significant operational change or expense (see point above).

A crisis is usually less a hit on corporate reputation than an outcome of some weakness or fault in corporate strategy (short of the rare Acts of God), so arguably a crisis itself is a relevant reputational event. How it’s handled is important, but in a perfunctory, process way. For all of the lectures and case histories on how brilliantly Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol tampering scare in 1982, there’s been little written about how its corporate strategists missed the necessity of tamper-proof packaging. What about Union Carbide’s apparent malfeasance in Bhopal two years later…wasn’t the spill an outcome of its operational performance and not some external, unpredictable event? Though no lives were lost, shouldn’t Sony and other big brand names have chosen to put better security on their online gamer account details?

Good corporate reputations are built and then protected by good corporate business strategies and constant vigilance thereupon. No PR plan is going to address that fact, or change it after a crisis occurs.

Sad thing is that we buy Tyson chicken, only now I’m thinking they have their attention misplaced on the messenger instead of the message. I wonder what’s in their operations that they’re worried might bite ‘em (and about which they’re unwilling to make any real operational decisions)?


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