The Problem with Public Relations

Rob Enderle

Earlier this week, I wrote about Google's apparently false statement that it was going to eliminate Windows internally for security reasons. I perceived that the reason had more to do with the fact that Microsoft is a competitor. Given Google's lack of concern for your or my privacy, Microsoft could block Google search for "security reasons," too. While its cause might be more justified, because of this same competitive relationship, we wouldn't believe that either. At the same time, Steve Jobs is trashing Flash and argues that it is because Flash is crap. Yet the real reason has more to do with Adobe using Flash to eliminate Apple's control.


Google is hard to believe, while many actually believe Apple. The difference is in approach, initially and after the fact.


What really brings this to point is an interesting post on the person behind @BPglobalPR (it is worth reading). I just became a fan. He or she has become somewhat of a Twitter legend. Let's explore this some more as we watch our oceans turn brown.

PR: Is It a Mistake?


What that BP article seems to point out isn't that PR is a mistake, but that it is often done with the belief that regardless of existing reality or perceptions, PR can effectively be used to cover up obvious problems. It is the "regardless" part that is in error. I think the perception that PR and marketing can somehow magically make a highly visible problem somehow disappear is wrong-headed.


The BP article also points indirectly to the fact that in this age of social networking and citizen journalism, it is more difficult to cover things up or sugarcoat them. There are a lot of eyes and, unlike the days of traditional media, where a reporter might miss a critical mistake, it is vastly more likely that the mistake will be picked up, put on the Web and then possibly resonate.


On the other hand, "lots of eyes" can be a problem for the truth as well. That same critical piece of information can be lost in the large volume of information that surrounds a news item. For instance, and this came from the blog comments, we seem to have completely forgotten that the failsafe on the gushing well was apparently defective and it was probably the reliance on that failsafe that contributed to the belief that safer practices didn't need to be followed. Consider that if you believe you have anti-lock brakes, you are likely to drive faster in the rain. If those brakes don't work, the fact that you didn't know they didn't work might cause an accident. But if the anti-lock brake people focus everyone on your driving, they'll likely get away clean. The company that supplied the failsafe apparently went dark; most of the focus is on BP as a result.


It isn't that PR is a mistake, but that it has to evolve to understand how this new world works to be effective. BP's PR, and I would argue Google's, hasn't. Sometimes going dark might be better than actively trying to make something look a lot better than it is.


I brought in Apple in the lead because its reason given for not liking Flash is more believable because there is some truth underneath what it is saying. Flash is relatively unreliable, but Apple also included the real reasons it doesn't want to use it; it just tries to focus people on a message that makes Apple look better. Apple lies effectively; it is almost an art form with the company.


The best example was its Mac vs. Windows campaign. While much of what it focused on was either out of date or actually shared with the MacOS, the initial perceptions around Windows Vista were incredibly bad and when they were fixed, Microsoft failed to adequately market the fixes. As a result, people believed what Apple said and Apple gained market share. However, after Windows 7 shipped and Microsoft rolled out an effective marketing and PR effort, Apple discontinued the spots, recognizing that they would only make Apple look disingenuous, which would have damaged trust and hurt Apple long term.


Apple does this so well that many can argue that Apple simply uses creative emphasis to mislead people who are easily misled.


Whatever you call it, it is hard to argue that it isn't effective.

Disney and the Underlying Lesson


When I went through the Disney University decades ago, something stuck with me: the concept of being on stage vs. off stage. At Disney, the meaning was clear: Whenever you were in front of customers, you were to be in character. You were expected to act consistently with Disney's image and the environment and role you were playing. I think people, particularly executives, forget that today firms like BP and Google are always on stage and that few things are missed, like staging a photo op for the president.


If you do the right thing in the first place, PR's job will be easy and generally it will be successful. If you don't, the opposite will likely be true. Or, another way of putting this is that while PR can help make small changes in perception and correct false perceptions effectively, covering up the truth in this age of citizen journalism is likely beyond its capability long term. The effort will likely backfire.


Or, putting it still another way: Placing "do no evil" in a mission statement won't be nearly as effective as not doing evil in the first place, or admitting and correcting the behavior rather than covering it up. The right way is to not do evil, the wrong way is to attempt to redefine evil as a class of things you currently aren't doing. BP and Google are doing the latter. This is an example of what not to do.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jun 4, 2010 9:58 AM samir bhavnani samir bhavnani  says:

Interesting the official handle, @bp_america has just under 10K followers & a @klout score of 72 while the unofficial @bpglobalpr has more than 100K followers & a klout score of 95.

Jun 4, 2010 10:21 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to samir bhavnani

Now that is interesting thank for sharing!

Jun 5, 2010 11:27 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says: in response to samir bhavnani

Those figures don't surprise me. Who wants to listen to an oil company who doesn't know how to shut down an oil well.

And this is not "unprecedented" as we are told. Flashback to 1979, almost the place, almost the same company, 200 foot well-not 5000 feet, same useless shutdown attempts, 9+ months to shut it down:



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