What is Public Relations?

I am going to introduce a new way of thinking about public relations (PR). In doing so, I will also provide a fresh, useful approach to PR challenges. This new approach will be particularly useful for technology companies that are trying to grow quickly in highly contested, dynamic markets.

What do people think PR is?
According to the common view, public relations is all about controlling conversations between companies and the public. Taken at face value, this definition suggests that PR is a cost center that simply manages the flow of information in and out of a company. Interpreted cynically, this definition paints PR as a set of damage control methodologies employed whenever a company is subject to public ridicule.

If you think about the crises that large companies have faced in the last few years, it’s easy to see why public relations campaigns usually fail. For example, when British Petroleum (BP) ruined the Gulf Coast in 2010, the company could not find an effective way of communicating with the American public. In fact, the company’s CEO went on the record with complaints about how the gaffe had interfered with his personal life.

BP’s PR strategy is a good example of a bad example: Instead of taking responsibility for its mistakes, BP issued a number of inauthentic rationalizations designed only to serve BP’s short term interests in reducing the company’s legal liability.

What is effective PR?
The BP example helps bring into sharp relief the three core characteristics of effective PR:

Authenticity: The single most common characteristic of ineffective PR messages is their utter and complete lack of authenticity.

Faced with a public humiliation, a PR official will huddle with a few key executives and the company’s legal team to discuss how to address the situation. Typically, the approach will center around what messages should be shared about the company’s position with particular stakeholders. These messages are usually conceived to deny or minimize the culpability of the company. Call this the communication centered approach.

This approach is superficially quite appealing. If you don’t reflect on what the costs really are, it can seem as though a communication centered approach is inexpensive. It only costs the company however much the PR team is paid to deal with the debacle.

But the communication centered approach has extremely high costs. First, a company’s reputation plummets further when it delivers mere words with no corrective action to grant meaning to those words. Second, the creation of an authentic, well-crafted solution is unnecessarily delayed because internal stakeholders are focusing all of their creative energies on conjuring an alluring narrative.

Figuring out what went wrong is hard, which is precisely why many PR professionals avoid the task. Yet identifying the problem with laser-like precision is a necessary first step in finding the right solution.

Action-oriented: Another common problem with PR strategies is that they are long on explanations and future aspirations but short on action.

In an age where information travels around the world instantaneously, you cannot afford to simply issue apologies about what happened. You must take swift action to ensure that any apologies or explanations you share with the public are taken seriously.

A good example of action-oriented PR is Airbnb’s approach to handling a host’s property damage when a guest decided to hold an impromptu orgy. Eschewing rationalizations and self-serving excuses for the guest’s conduct, Airbnb took a mere 24 hours to put the host up in a hotel, change his locks, and wire over $23,000 to cover the resulting damage to his apartment.

Long term view: The final issue that often emerges concerns the nature of the solution announced by the company. Typically, if there is a solution to the underlying problem, that solution is conceived with the company’s short term interests in mind.

This is a dire mistake. If you are serious about growth, you must think of your company as if it were a physical organism, growing and adapting to its environment. At each stage of its growth, it will face unique environmental pressures and challenges. You must balance the protective instinct – which insists that all threats must be eliminated – against a more tempered view which understands that challenges, even difficult ones, are often necessary to spur meaningful growth.

Therefore, taking the long term view requires taking the biological growth metaphor seriously: You can’t let a threat annihilate you, but you have to recognize when a mistake must be addressed today, even if doing so imposes stiff costs in the short term. The best medicine, after all, always tastes the worst.

If effective PR has these three characteristics, why isn’t it just rolled into other corporate functions? Law and marketing should also be authentic, action-oriented and long-term focused, so what makes PR distinct? PR differs from law in that legal knowledge is not the key or sole resource talented public relations specialists draw upon. An adroit PR team will take legal considerations into account, but they will also integrate local customs, different political practices, and unique economic circumstances. Unlike marketing, the messages that PR needs to communicate to the wider world do not narrowly concern the products or services the company produces. In fact, PR is often tasked with convincing a company’s customer base that a product remains the best available choice for consumers despite some serious imperfection in that product.

PR isn’t law or marketing, so what exactly is it? In a nutshell, PR is an independent and creative problem solving discipline. MacGyver with words, if you like. And since the true test of an idea is its usefulness, let’s apply this conception of PR to an actual crisis.

PR as creative problem solving
If you have been keeping up with Uber, you probably know that a rider in Delhi, India was recently raped by a local driver. The driver turned out to be a career criminal, a fact that went undetected by Uber’s vetting process. Delhi’s official response was to ban Uber from providing ride sharing services, presumably to send a signal about how seriously the city government takes sexual assaults.

What should Uber do or say when one of its riders has been raped? The first thing is to identify what – if anything – the company did wrong.

In this case, the mistake appears to be the failure to find clear evidence that the driver did not have a criminal record. This mistake, of course, is not a simple mistake of procedure. Uber was provided with a character certificate for the driver by the local police. While many criminals in Delhi have effectively washed away records of past offenses with bribes, there is no way of reliably identifying these individuals because India has not implemented an effective ID system.

If Uber is going to react to this tragedy authentically, as the kind of company that will one day be the clear leader in transportation and logistics the world over, it must think creatively about how to increase rider safety for the women of Delhi. After all, Uber wants to become the leading logistics & transportations company for the entire globe. Becoming that company requires doing much more than a mere cab company. Thus, Uber’s response to cases like this must be commensurate with its long-term vision. For precisely that reason, Uber’s PR strategy should not myopically focus on whether its past behavior in vetting the rapist was correct. The company should instead take proactive steps to build the kind of ride sharing ecosystem that India deserves.

What should those steps be? Given what is publicly known about this tragedy, the following steps seem reasonable:

First, Uber should immediately adopt vetting procedures for drivers that reflect the difficulties inherent in obtaining credible, complete criminal background information in India.

If this seems like a tall order, well, it is. But Uber’s mission – to become the world’s best transportation and logistics platform – is an ambitions one. To succeed in this mission, Uber must adapt to the political, economic and social realities of the countries it serves.

Second, Uber should consider referral-based recruiting. Under this approach, in order to be eligible to drive for Uber, an individual would have to obtain a strong referral from an existing driver that included demographic information about the candidate useful to assessing his or her character and reputation in the community. This referral would provide information about a prospective driver that is difficult to obtain through local police officials.

Finally, Uber should respond compassionately on an individualized basis to customers that are harmed while riding in an Uber car. While it would be wrong to adopt a rigid formula, in the aftermath of violent attacks the following measures are a step in the right direction. Whenever a Uber driver victimizes a rider, including rape, Uber should (1) immediately offer access to professionally-trained counselors and (2) pick up all medical costs (including hospital visits and psychological care). Rape is a world-shattering experience, and the least Uber can do is to provide compassion and understanding to victims. For a company that wants to support its community of riders, this is the right thing to do.

Public relations is not the dark art of making bad deeds seem good. Nor is it a simple exercise in issuing promises of better behavior to faceless customers. PR is a creative, problem solving discipline that should be undertaken only by those who want to help build a better world.


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