Thanks to blog commentator James Bruni for pointing out this very interesting behind thes scenes look at major reputation management efforts at work. James writes for nowpublic.com and has a PR firm–Bruni PR. The story, covered in PR Watch details how the Burson Marsteller firm and its affiliates worked to help Dow Corning change the image of breast implants after the courts and government had determined that they were dangerous and the company had covered up the facts.
Clearly, this story (and apparently the site PR Watch) has a focus on uncovering the bad behavior of PR firms. And there is no doubt that there are a lot of PR firms engaging in bad behavior. I can tell a few such stories myself. But, I’d like to take a little different view on this story.
Activists groups including NGOs and “grassroots” organizations have developed over the years basic strategies that enable them to be very effective in bringing their cause to the public attention and creating change. Typically these “groups” are presented as grassroots organizations with lots of people behind them, but are organized and managed by one or two or a handful of seasoned pros. Typically these pros have been successful at raising money for their causes and are reasonably well paid by their own non-profit organizations. They work very hard to get media coverage, and they know what red flags to raise. In our hyper competitive media atmosphere, big companies that can be demonstrated to put the public good (health, safety, security, environment, etc.) at risk make excellent career-building stories for young, aggressive journalists. And if there is the slightest hint of a cover-up, well, can you say Woodward and Bernstein?
One great story leads to another, and another, and another. All using the basic set of facts, and all fed by a well organized “PR” planner who feeds additional media what the previous media have covered. They search out and find victims. Do they report that 99% of all customers of the companies product are completely happy and the product is safe in almost all circumstances? No, quite understandably they seek out and find those people willing to show publicly the awful consequences of the company’s disdain for customers and safety. The reporters find their job easier and easier to do.
Now lawyers sense a new area of profit. And now politicians who need to make a name for themselves see that the “public” (actually, a few reporters looking to build careers) have expressed grave concern. Pressure starts building on the regulatory organizations to “do their job” and to protect their reputations they start making it sound like it is a rogue company out of control who will be the subject of their righteous wrath. Adn the juggernaut roars on, but now with the added advantage of it being a major public issue, which does great things for the fund raising efforts of the PR person (activist) who got the ball rolling in the first place.
So, what does the company do? Gets people in place who know how to play this cynical game–know the rules and what works. They seek out people who will be victimized by the change the activists, lawyers and journalists are promoting. They show there is another side. They provide the facts about the benefits of the product or service that balances out the few who may have had negative experience. And what happens? This activity gets “exposed” as an unseamly, dirty game.
Clearly, I’m overstating to make a point. But my point is very clear: it is part of dangerous political correctness today to assume that only activists and accusers have the right to play this game. No one is pure in the ongoing struggle to bring things to public light, find the truth, uncover evil, and make the world a better place. Let us not stop being critical of the Burson Marstellers. But let us, for the sake of what is right and fair, be a little more willing to look at the strategies and tactics of all those who profit from destroying reputations and putting an end to the benefits of too many good products and services.