I just finished my Image Patrol column for next week's PR News (www.prnewsonline.com) comparing how Fleishman and Ketchum handled their respective crises. And the more I wrote, the madder I became. Both of these affairs severely damaged the reputation of honest, hardworking PR professionals everywhere. As if the media wasn't hard enough on PR people to begin with!
You'll have to wait till next week to read the full analysis. but here's an excerpt:
Imagine if your client got embroiled in a major media controversy. Would your first advice be to blame someone else, and then say no to every request for comment or documentation? Hardly! These very pages have been filled for years with highly respected representatives of our industry, some of whom have worked for Ketchum, recommending the basics of crisis communications: Own the problem; Be forthright, contrite, and honest; Give out as much information as you possibly can. Did Ketchum do any of those things? Hardly. As a result, the crisis over Ketchum’s hiring Armstrong Williams to flog the No Child Left Behind issue is in its second month and shows no sign of slowing down. The New York Times has now devoted an extraordinary number of inches and four Sundays covering the declining credibility of the PR industry. Indeed, the Internet today is full of new comments and stories about Ketchum’s lack of transparency and failure to cooperate. And many make the valid point that PR and communications agencies are extraordinarily difficult to get information out of - -only revealing the bare minimum of data like gross billing. One document requested under a Freedom of Information Act request had every single billing amount redacted. Maybe Ketchum needs to hire a crisis communications firm that hasn’t been taken over by lawyers to solve its crisis.
If extent and duration of crisis is any measure of success, cooperating with the authorities definitely helps. A recent Nexis search showed that Ketchum’s crisis was garnering about 40% more coverage than Fleishman’s, this despite the fact that John Stodder, the partner in charge of the Los Angeles office's "public affairs" practice group, was indicted on federal fraud charges that allege he participated in a scheme that resulted in fraudulent bills being submitted to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Stodder, who only left Fleishman the week before the indictment, was charged with 11 felony counts of wire fraud for submitting nearly $250,000 in fraudulent bills to the DWP. The indictment details communications in early 2003 in which a co-schemer asks Stodder to "pad" the DWP bill by $30,000. In response, Stodder allegedly informed the co-schemer that $30,000 was "more than the system could bear," but that another co-schemer had informed him that they could "slip through another $15k without incurring too much more scrutiny." Ouch, hardly the stuff to inspire trust from your clients. The good news is that Fleishman was cooperating with the investigation.
And while the damage to both of these firms reputation is bad enough, the real problem with both of these cases is that they damage, perhaps permanently the relationships required for the rest of us PR practitioners to succeed. All of public relations is based on relationships – relationships that are grounded in trust, credibility, competency and control mutuality. Imagine a reporter getting a call from a Ketchum employee. How could he or she not help questioning the source and wondering who was paying for that particular piece of propaganda. And if I were about to hire a PR firm, wouldn’t I wonder if they were going to “pad the bills?”
I’ve heard a lot of comments about the damage the New York Times stories have done to our industry, but the sad thing is, it’s not the media coverage of these crises that is causing the damage, it’s our own behavior.