One of the toughest realisations I have had to come to is that public relations is like being a security guard. If the building you are in charge of never gets robbed, it is a safe building. However, if it gets robbed, you are not doing a good job.
In PR, you are only as strong and good as your client turns out to be. And when client messes up, you could, and probably will, face collateral damage. Even if you are the best security guard, if the building you are guarding has many other security leaks over which you have no control, you will fail.
“Who is his advisor?” Anyone in PR has heard these words far too often when their client is on the receiving end of bad publicity. Any PR person who has advised a politician will know this for sure.
In PR no two days are ever the same.
This reminds me of a story of a PR specialist who was appointed on a multi-million contract by a Cabinet minister to help build the brand of the minister.
Within months of sealing the contract, the said minister was becoming a household name. From a fairly unknown and peripheral politician, soon he was on national TV, on major radio talk shows and featuring in the leading newspapers all over the country.
In parliament, reporters wanted to hear most from this minister. He was a walking sound-bite machine. Stakeholders wanted to see this minister. Business flooded his diary. A star was born.
The ratings were shooting through the roof. Even the Mail & Guardian’s government reporters gave this minister a high rating.
For the PR specialist, this was a dream client. This client was following the script. He was available for early morning interviews and was willing to meet the media even after long-haul international flights.
Editors invited this minister to their offices. Whenever the minister asked for a hearing, all he had to say was “jump”, and the response would be “how high?”
But one day the proverbial brown stuff hit the fan. For whatever reason, the minister got himself into trouble at a personal level.
To protect the identity of both the PR specialist and minister, I will not give you the specifics of the trouble because then it would be easy to identify either or both of these people.
Suddenly the honeymoon was over. Yesterday’s hero was today’s villain. Headlines had changed from ‘A breath of fresh air’ to ‘A bad smell in the office’.
What was most exasperating for the PR specialist was that he still believed he could help client. He still believed that this crisis of a personal nature could be managed.
But client was in a different state. He was personally attacked and all the wisdom and diplomacy flew out of the window. In interviews he threw the script out the window. He told more lies. He denied the truth.
And then the cartoons came. The most dreaded one showed the minister with the advisor in some dark alley conspiring to “lie again”.
Now the advisor was drawn into the damage. At this time, the same guy who was an uncelebrated hero for turning a dodo into a peacock, was now being blamed for giving his client bad advice.
Nobody knew or cared that actually it was client that was ignoring advice and was now on autopilot to self-destruction.
Question is: Is it time to jump when this happens?
There are no easy answers. PR advisors like everyone else are in it for the money. Sometimes, but very rarely, some get fame out of it.
You cannot quit every time your client messes up. In fact history and future clients will judge you harshly for being a “sunshine revolutionary”. You are actually more important to your client in bad times than in the good times.
But the flip side is also important. A good PR specialist does not personalise client’s performance. When client does well, and they get the accolades, just take the cheque. When client does badly, they get the bad publicity, take the collateral damage on the chin.
It is almost like learning that your favourite pastor has stolen church money or sleeps with housewives when men are away. It is not about you. Yes it may give your church a bad name, but it is not about you.
Crises happen to everyone, and sometimes they happen when you have done nothing wrong. Chin up and do your thing nevertheless.
Rams Mabote is a public relations coach, spin doctor, connector, author and MC. He owns the consultancy, The Kingmaker. Follow him on Twitter @ramsmabote
IMAGE: Frayed rope / Wikimedia Creative Commons
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.