“So you’re a spin doctor?” my new acquaintance asked, one eyebrow raised, as if I’d just admitted to being a reptile.
I’d introduced myself as a public-relations counselor and university PR instructor. His reaction was not that unusual. “Flack.” “Huckster.” “Hype artist.” These and less savory terms have plagued PR practitioners.
How ironic for a profession that’s dedicated to building “mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
Such relationships cannot be built on spin or deceptive tactics. Rather, true public relations is focused on maintaining trust.
“Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find it out anyway,” advised Ivy Lee, the father of modern public relations. “And if the public doesn’t like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what the people want.”
Actions speak louder than words, and Lee knew it.
This is especially true with high-stakes crisis communications. When companies have been caught up in scandal, no amount of clever advertising will rebuild trust. Corrective action must come first. Recently, Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and other major brands have come to realize that they could not rebuild public trust until they had first committed to changing their actions.
You can’t just run an ad campaign.
To paraphrase Harold Burson, who built the largest global PR firm of the twentieth century, public relations is first doing the right thing and only then taking credit for it.
That’s why I introduce myself as a public-relations counselor. My role is to advise our clients’ upper management first to do the right things — to take the right strategic actions — that will lead to cultivating trust and building mutually beneficial relationships with publics.
In the long run, that’s the only effective approach to public relations.