Penn State, Solyndra, Bank of America, and Kim Kardashian: Four Horsemen of the PR Apocalypse

Sometimes no amount of disclosure, explanation, denials or apologies is enough. Sometimes the only way to fix the problem is to fix the problem. Photo: Hibakuska

SAN DIEGO, November 18, 2011―In the wake of numerous scandals hitting the headlines, opinions are pouring forth from public relations pundits as to how organizations like Penn State, businesses like Bank of America and Solyndra, politicians like Anthony Weiner, or celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan should respond to their self-imposed crises. 

Experts in crisis communications are never short on advice. Come forward from the beginning with the whole story. Own up to your bad behavior. Be transparent. Apologize. Make amends. Reverse course. Change course. Drop out of the race. Deny and countersue. Good public relations can make everything better, right?

No, it can’t. Sometimes no amount of disclosure, explanation, denials or apologies is enough. Sometimes the only way to fix the problem is to fix the problem.

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is arrested on charges of child abuse. Associated Press.

When the sort of immoral culture in an organization like Penn State allows child abuse to flourish, there exists a problem far too toxic and evil for mere public relations to be of any help.

When a business makes a decision that damages its precious customer relationships, compounded by ignoring honest feedback, it’s like someone having an affair. The trust broken is not easily if ever restored.

When someone who wants to serve as a leader in politics, business, education, or the law tries to hide and then deny their own bad behavior while wagging a finger of self-righteousness toward the rest of us, no one will listen to them or follow them willingly anywhere.

When celebrities abuse our fascination with them by off-the-chart bad behavior and indifference to our pleas to stop, we stop watching, buying or caring about what they do or say.

Public relations cannot fix a broken moral compass. Public relations cannot fix greed. Public relations cannot fix a “talk to the hand” attitude. Public relations cannot fix the damage caused by a poor or indecisive leader.

People have wised up to the dirty tricks of unethical flacks and spin-doctors. They aren’t having it, and now they’ve got the tools through social media to say so. This is the best news an ethical public relations person could hope for. The more the public calls out whitewashing, spinning, cover-ups and lying for what they are, the better for the entire profession.

The single critical responsibility of public relations is to point out to clients the likely impact of their behavioral or operational decisions on the trust and credibility their relationships and their reputation rest upon. When in a position to help people identify what the real problem(s) are, we must suggest steps they can and should take to cure the disease, not just mask the symptoms.

When working with anyone who demonstrates character defects or a lack of ethics, professionals need to do the right thing and not aid or abet their behavior. Categorically refuse to participate in any failure to take proper action, refuse to engage in whitewash or excuses, and walk away with your reputation intact. Because as a public relations professional, in the end your reputation is all you have. 

So it’s now up to the PR person to draw the hard line. Man up. Woman up. Refuse to spin. Stop the madness. Stand for something. Public relations has a code of ethics. Follow it. 

Admittedly it’s hard to walk away from paying work in today’s climate. If you are working for a political candidate and you tell him or her it’s time to quit the campaign, you’re out of a job. You have all the motivation in the world to keep them going and keep those paychecks coming.

But so much good could be done for the practice of public relations by walking away when the situation demands it. Ethical public relations does not have to be an oxymoron.

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.


Copyright © 2011 by Falcon Valley Group


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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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