Shock, horror, probe: PR shouldn't be propaganda

Spin doctors.  Propagandists.  Paid liars.  The more PR people rail against being tarnished with these tired clichés, the more defensive we sound.  Yet believe it or not, good public relations practitioners spend a lot of time behind the scenes promoting candour over propaganda.

Many organisations espouse values such as openness, honesty and integrity. Yet many do themselves, their people and their customers a disservice by not being as open as they could be.  This happens for a number of reasons, including a desire to save face when something goes wrong, political manoeuvring, and fear of criticism or dissent.

Deliberately covering up, glossing over or ignoring an issue may give the illusion that all is well but a propagandist approach can create deep and long-lasting resentment amongst employees, customers and other stakeholders (see case study below).  

This can lead to disengaged and cynical employees, low productivity and poor customer service.  Customers may become disillusioned and take their business elsewhere, and the organisation’s reputation with target markets can be undermined.

It is also common to see organisations and individuals (particularly politicians) trying to dodge an issue, which ironically keeps the issue on the boil as people begin to unpick the truth.

Of course there needs to be a balance between being open and honest, and needlessly baring detail that does not need to be aired. Yet owning up to a mistake, taking responsibility (as opposed to blaming someone else) and taking steps to put things right can serve to diffuse the issue and ultimately enhance trust – particularly if there is prompt follow through on any promises made.

As American author Ann Aguirre so aptly put it: “Once exposed, a secret loses all its power”.

Five top tips for propaganda-free PR

•    Tell the truth; never lie.
•    Communicate promptly; the longer you leave it, the angrier people will be.
•    Acknowledge those who have been affected.
•    Say sorry!  Avoid the temptation to try and give the appearance of apologising without really doing so – people will see straight through that.
•    Acknowledge that mistake(s) have been made but avoid getting too bogged down in what went wrong.  Instead, focus attention on what is being done to put things right and/or make sure it doesn’t happen again. (Be sure to follow up to make sure that promised actions are being implemented.)

Case study

I learned a hard lesson about PR propaganda early on in my career when I was the internal communication manager in a corporate whose first-ever major sales promotion had fallen well short of expectations.  

The staff newsletter had featured the promotion when it launched and, in the interests of reflecting the company’s value of “integrity”, I wrote a follow-up article about the promotion’s underwhelming results and what had been learned from the experience.

The Chief Executive saw things differently when he reviewed the article and demanded that I rewrote it to position the promotion as being a success.  Against my better judgement, I acceded.  It didn’t take long to learn that many employees were angry about the story and no longer felt they could trust what the company communicated to them.

Months later I was challenged about the article during a meeting with one of the departments involved in the promotion.  Rather than trying to put a positive spin on it, I explained how the situation had come about, took ownership of my role in it, apologised for my poor judgement in rewriting it and then promised I’d never make that mistake again.  

There had been an uncomfortable hush in the room when I was initially challenged but people’s faces lit up when I fronted up to the issue and I was later thanked for my candour.  It was an uncomfortable lesson to learn, but one I have carried with me ever since.