Jack Welch, former head of General Electric and a respected business leader, was critical of corporate and political cultures where the Boss was akin to God and people spend all their time “with their face towards the boss and their (backside) to the customer”.
Too bad that most public relations practitioners (PRPs) forget that. The best PRP is not a lackey who soothes his boss’s ego or plans trips for the media – the best practitioner has his or her smiling face to the real power: the media. Too many PRPs waste significant amounts of money on low credibility media and spend too little on media training.
Do not assume that because you can send an e-mail, you know how to write. Or that because you are a fabulous dinnerparty host or an engaging corporate presenter, you will come across well on television or radio. It’s a little like the difference between being a movie star and a great Shakespearean theatre actor: Few can do both.
A good PRP will put themselves and employers through something they learn to fear more than the dentist: media training. I learnt radio from Chris Gibbons at 702. I can remember driving with an eraser clamped between my teeth going “ma-ma-ma” and weeping because I couldn’t get a slight lisp under control. I started to feel as if I couldn’t speak at all.
Gibbons taught me how to encapsulate complex issues in 30 seconds. And that’s what PRPs often don’t realise (nor do their bosses): Any company or government official that can tell you in one minute or less what they do, what their strategic directions are and back it with statistics, will get lots of media play. The quest for original ideas and challenging opinions has never been greater. Those who know how to respond rapidly, politely and engagingly are loved by the media and that has huge pay-offs in terms of reputation and being sought-after by clients and other opinion leaders.
(Jack) Welch recommended that leaders, “face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be”. The most important work of a PRP is what they keep out of the media, if they can control or prevent damage or turn bad news into a positive. And good journalism is about research and knowing how to quiz.
It’s about asking the stupid questions: “Do you believe HIV causes AIDS?” because they most often yield the most riveting answers.
An excellent example of an intelligent interrogation was Xolani Gwala’s recent interview on SAfm with the PR manager for a baby formula milk producer, which recalled products that contained three times more melanin than World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. The PR manager insisted the milk was safe but Gwala, accurately sensing public concern, nailed him to the floor and then stomped all over him. What the PR manager should have said, is: “We have recalled the milk, we are concerned it is not up to standard and we will invest x-million into our production plant immediately to ensure it exceeds WHO standards.”
He didn’t and so listeners cheered as Gwala stomped.
How should journalists deal with poor PRPs? Journalists have a responsibility to the public and to history. Too many phone PRPs and accept the two words no self-respecting media manager would ever utter to the press: “No comment.”
Because some fail to do research before making a call, they can’t come up with an appropriate response, such as: “That’s an unacceptable answer, you’re a public body (JSE-listed company, government); you are answerable to the public.”
There are many reasons why interviewees give poor information: They haven’t read a newspaper in months, nor watched or listened to a full news broadcast in ages. They know there is a global financial crisis, but not the detail; they gossip about politics but would be hard pressed to pronounce the name of our president; they know there were terrorist attacks in Mumbai – where’s that again?
Poor news awareness leads to people being terrified of the media (not necessary if you are honest and open) or supercocky and dismissive of the media (the ones, in other words, heading for the most serious fall).
Another reason why PRPs give poor information is that they have a boss who is poorly educated about the media, does not give fast or immediate access to this PRP, and thinks his/her power is greater than that of the media.
Think again. There is an old saying: Never argue with those who buy ink by the barrel.
Charlene Smith is a journalist, author and consultant.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (January 2009).