A few months ago, a prominent executive—someone who should have known better—asked me: “What is it exactly that you do?” Having been asked this question hundreds of times over the past quarter century, I replied: “Just like a company’s brand and reputation, every corporation has public relations, whether they want it or not. The only question is whether they want to strategically direct it or let it drift on to the rocks.”
A variation of this question gave rise to a remarkable white paper in the 1980s titled “The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Relations.” The irony? Today they’re far worse. In a YouTube, anybody-can-write-a-blog environment, these seven deadly sins not only remain in force, they have intensified in toxic magnitude. Left unchecked, these sins can and will devastate profit, reputation, employee performance and corporate earnings, particularly in an intense 21st-century interactive environment.
If you’ve ever wondered why companies who develop and deploy a strategic public relations focus seem to do better than others, here are the updated seven deadly sins that illustrate why:
1. The faucet philosophy of PR. This sin is often better known as, “We’ll turn on the PR when we think we need it.” This fairy-tale belief has outright killed more than a few companies, particularly in a lightning-fast Internet setting where leaked confidential e-mails take on a global life of their own. When senior executives embrace and engage in strategic reputation management, the benefits ramp up quickly. When they’re caught off guard in a crisis, they generally pay through the bottom line.
2. Functional myopia. This directly relates to the question that I was asked by the Indiana executive who didn’t know the value of professional PR. Even when I was working in Southern California, I was surprised at the business people who thought PR mostly specialized in retail grand openings or “getting something in the paper.”
Professional public relations may or may not involve the tactics of media relations or special events. PR is inextricably intertwined in strategic brand development, where the third-party independent endorsement achieved by focused public relations creates and sustains a corporate brand far more effectively than stand-alone advertising. As advertising giant Al Ries declares: “Advertising is brand maintenance. PR is brand building.” In an online environment, this is more true than ever.
3. Local anesthesia. This deadly sin often rears its head when a negative story or comment appears in a small newspaper and the top corporate executives blow it off as inconsequential. Even small newspapers have Web sites, and those Web sites are accessible and linkable everywhere. Back to brand development, as brand icon Scott Bedbury puts it, a brand is based on collective experience and perception. A company can make a public claim about its performance, but if they don’t live it, somebody’s going to blow the whistle, even in a small rural Indiana town. The negative outcome can be global.
4. The one-shot communications tic. This deadly sin erupts when senior management sends out a generic blast e-mail to all employees or the media about a complex situation and then wonders why people don’t “get it.” Sustained messaging strategies designed to communicate to specific vertical audiences are a requirement in the 21st century.
5. Good news neurasthenia. Every executive wants to communicate good news about their company. The deadly sin is committed when that’s all that they’re willing to communicate. If Johnson & Johnson had used this deadly sin as a strategy back during the Tylenol crisis, they likely would have lost the essential consumer faith required for them to stay in business. Executing a professional PR program often requires courageous honesty, but the benefits are immense.
6. The shadow delusion. This deadly sin manifests itself with the false belief that companies can operate out of sight or under the radar. When prodded for a public statement or disclosure, the management response is to stonewall or provide limited information. The fact remains that nature abhors a vacuum, and that means in the absence of credible information, people will simply make it up. That made-up information quickly becomes word-of-mouth, which is almost irreversible, particularly in the short term. Without existing key relationships and a credible reputation, an otherwise sound company can quickly fall prey to the consequences of this deadly sin.
7. The hysteron proteron approach. Many people rely almost exclusively on what marketers call “self-reference criteria,” which is a ten-dollar way of saying “I believe it, therefore everybody believes it.” A “hysteron proteron” is formally defined as “a logical fallacy of assuming as a premise something that follows from what is to be proved.” You beat bad information with good information, and good information comes from quality research. In the Google and ChaCha search engine age, there is no credible excuse for not doing your homework when trying to communicate with target audiences.
In the pre-Internet world of 1985, PR pro Joseph Awad certainly got it right with his first presentation of the Seven Deadly Sins of Public Relations. Today, they’re even more lethal. Left unchecked, these transgressions represent company-busters and brand-bruisers.
Don’t let your most valuable corporate assets—your brand and your reputation—fall prey to these deadly sins. Repent now and reap the benefits.
Michael Synder is the managing principal at The MEK Group.