By letterhead | May 15, 2008
I’ve still been noodling on the whole JetBlue post from yesterday and I think this event is a pretty good teaching moment for those who still can’t tell the difference between PR and marketing — as well as those executives who treat PR (and PR people) as a hassle without value. (And for PR students who may find themselves one day as professionals faced with this kind of situation.)
The key issue we will illustrate here is that the seed of most public relations disasters is bad behavior and poor decision making on the part of management.
These problems often fester at the operational level before they break into public view — which means that most of these situations could have been avoided if different decisions had been made, and the company could have gotten a better handle on the public mess if PR people had been involved earlier on.
This key observation is often overlooked in the never-ending and totally moot discussion of whether PR is subordinate to marketing.
Lesson #1: Multiple Guess
Imagine you’re a C-suite exec at an airline (i.e., any big company) and you find that in all likelihood one of your pilots (i.e., a senior manager) endangered the safety/life of a passenger (i.e., a customer) and potentially exposed the company to a federal prosecution. What do you do…?
a) give the pilot a raise…
b) give the pilot another drink…
c) promote him to CEO…
d) suspend the f*#kr without pay
The correct answer, or course, is C: promote him to CEO.
If you are going to stonewall and spend more time avoiding the issue in the NATIONAL media –looking like you’re protecting an attitudinal douche-bag rather than your own passengers, then what you’re communicating is that this is how your corporate culture operates. And who better to run the place than the bull-slingin’ cowboy who embodies that culture?
Lesson #2: Everybody’s All American
If you know that your planes need inspecting and that it will require flight cancellations, then your best option is to…
a) fly all FAA inspectors off to Honolulu for a complimentary holiday
b) shred the memo and chat up your boss about the White Sox
c) lobby the government to get rid of “burdensome regulations”
d) have the maintenance staff notify scheduling teams, who notify the executive team, which calls the PR department to tell them the company has a potential disaster on its hands that could hit the fan in about two weeks; then you anticipate the scope of the problem and come up with a comprehensive, proactive media/customer service plan to get you through potentially the worst image disaster the company has ever faced.
The answer of course is E: “No comment.”
A Scientific Fact: Actions Speak Loudest in a Vaccuum
When JetBlue was faced with a lawsuit of the “man bites dog” variety they should have known immediately that every local newscast and late night comedian would be all over the “man relegated to toilet” story within 24 hours.
So, in their first-round response, why was there no mention of an internal investigation? Why was the pilot not suspended? Why, in short was there no action? Why, even now, are they content to “let the appropriate legal process take place?” As if all action is out of their hands until the Feds weigh in.
And why the language about “investigating the lawsuit?” Let’s see about this lawsuit… ok… it’s 183 pages, on legal paper, times new roman font, 12-point type, space-and-a-half… How about investigating “the alleged incident.”
Why no mention of safety, or status of the pilot, or airline policy… Can they not see that their inaction SPEAKS FOR THEM???
All too often, business people think of PR in the aftermath of a problem. But in reality, PR needs to be woven into the fabric of the decision making across the entire operational structure of the company.
Rather than thinking in terms of a narrow “inspection issue” and keeping it confined to its techincal staff, American Airlines should have considered how its incremental decisions could cascade out into its various constituencies — the exact same way it could cascade out into its flight schedule.
How you react to a lawsuit like the one against JetBlue will trump any and all of what you say about it. JetBlue needed to act like a hip, smart company that thinks like customers do — letting its image and communications priorities drive C-suite deliberations about what to DO in response, not just about what to SAY.
The REAL Difference Between PR and Marketing
This is not a hard problem people… it’s not an SAT question…
PR is about managing behavior and decision making. It is NOT simply about words and press releases and reactive spin. And it is NOT simply the sum of its delivery vehicles: internal, external, print, broadcast or even that blasted 2.o stuff.
Good PR — effective PR — is an analytical skill, a decision-making resource, and most of all an executive management mindset. And it needs to be integrated into the company at the operational level if it is going to deliver its greatest potential value.
That is VERY different from publicity, or reactive spin, or marketing comms, or any of the other narrow little boxes that people want to put PR into.
Now Be Good Reader and Share… PLEASE!?
Integrating a PR mindset helps make better business decisions — i.e., better decisions “for the business” according to what the business aims, and claims, to be.
So why is it that executives are do damned stubborn about adopting a PR mindset when it comes to decision making… and then expecting the PR staff to work miracles of spin once the damage is done?
I know at least 7 people read this blog… c’mon…