A longtime colleague of mine who has advised CEOs, Congressional leaders and Cabinet members recently complained to me that “Public relations always gets left holding the bag.”
Coming from someone so experienced and versed at the highest levels of government and business, I was a bit surprised at the source of the complaint but, sadly, not the content. And I’m sure most of my industry peers would feel the same.
It’s easy to point fingers at the mouthpieces for screw ups. Fix the message, change the messenger, and the problem will magically go away. Sometimes, admittedly, the error is actually in the execution. But more often than not, when public relations issues go bad, it’s a reflection of broader systemic issues in the organization. How does the leadership value public relations? Is it a function situated in the C-suite or is it relegated to a subfunction, say in marketing or, ugh, compliance. (Hint: it’s usually the latter, especially in big corporations that want to KPI you to death.)
Put more bluntly, do you have your chief communicators at the table when you’re making critical business decisions and developing the strategy? Or are they the last ones to learn with the least time to prep and add value to the plan? I’ve seen both at work, and let me just tell you, the difference in outcomes could not be more stark.
Look at the various rollouts of the COVID-19 vaccines for comparison’s sake. While Pfizer this week is enjoying the announcement that its vaccine is 100% effective in teens and remains highly effective after six months, its competitors at Johnson & Johnson are contending with an embarrassing batch contamination issue amid criticism that its subcontractor heavily lobbied for federal contracts in the pandemic. AstraZeneca, meanwhile, has utterly confused seemingly all of Europe over the efficacy and safety of its vaccine. For a process so highly fraught with risk, you’d better hope these companies brought their communications and public relations teams on early into the approvals and distribution planning processes, but the widely varying outcomes perhaps speak otherwise.
Or take Amazon. The company recently launched an eyebrow-raising Twitter tirade directed at Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, apparently at the behest of founder Jeff Bezos, who felt the company wasn’t pushing back at the progressive leaders’ criticisms of the company’s labor practices—all while the e-commerce giant awaits the outcome of the largest union election in its history.
The digital outburst had unintended consequences—it ignited new coverage around questionable workplace conditions with revelations that Amazon delivery workers sometimes cut corners to avoid missing their production quotas, such as limiting how much they drink on their routes or using what I’ll call “alternative facilities” for bathroom breaks on the job, thereby reinforcing the very debate around whether Amazon employees should unionize that they wanted to distract from. Something tells me this exercise wasn’t driven by some well-planned, internally scrutinized public relations strategy …
The lesson here is pretty simple. Listen to your communicators. Bring them in early to the decision-making process to better inform your plan with a more holistic perspective. You won’t be sorry you did. I, for one, have never had a client tell me “We wished we hired you later.”
This article was written by Executive Vice President Natalie Bauer Luce. Natalie is a seasoned communications and public affairs strategist with extensive experience at the intersection of government, law, politics and business.