I was going to blog about something else this week, but the whole Jian Ghomeshi affair has had such an impact on the PR community this past week that anything I’d write about would pale in comparison. And just to get it out there up front, this post is about how PR professionals can only work with clients they can trust. I am not out to comment on the allegations, Ghomeshi himself, CBC or any other aspect of this situation.
My view about the need to believe and trust those for whom we communicate seems to jive up with what most PR pros across Canada have been saying this week, ever since Ghomeshi was fired by the CBC because of allegations and public accusations of violence and sexual assault.
When the scandal first broke two weeks ago, Ghomeshi hired Navigator, a pricey crisis communications firm in Toronto to manage issues for him. Within a few days, though, media started reporting that they were being referred instead to rock-it promotions, a publicity firm that has handled Ghomeshi’s book publicity for a couple years. Then last Thursday, as more and more media reports of more women coming forward of stories about their encounters with Ghomeshi surfaced, both firms issued curt statements saying they no longer represented him. So to be clear, at first Ghomeshi had PR representation, then those representatives learned how he had lied to them, and they fired him. Or so says the Toronto Star, at least about Navigator.
“He lied to the firm,” said a source with knowledge of the situation.
According to the sources, until late Sunday night, Navigator was “buying (Ghomeshi’s) story” that it was a jilted ex-girlfriend who had manufactured lies that Ghomeshi was abusive. One source said the former CBC radio star had convinced the firm that there were no other allegations and there was nothing to be “concerned” about.
Then, as the Star reported between Monday and Thursday that at least eight women were making serious allegations of assault or sexual harassment against Ghomeshi, the firm decided at a series of meetings that it could not represent someone who, in their opinion, had lied.
Wow. But good for them. Lying to your PR firm is not going to get you good advice or representation. And in cases like this, it can get you fired by your PR firm.
But then yesterday, the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) kinda stepped into the fray. They issued a statement about the Ghomeshi affair, saying:
As the Ghomeshi story unfolds, several news outlets and social media posts have recently portrayed public relations counsel as an interference that does disservice to the public interest. References to terms such as “PR exercise” and “spin” have been used, reinforcing a long outdated stereotype.
As the industry association representing public relations practitioners in Canada, the Canadian Public Relations Society adheres to the premise that everyone deserves public relations and communications counsel. (emphasis mine)
Regardless of the client, we aim to help them find a voice, gain visibility, build trust, strengthen relationships, and safeguard their reputation. Crucially, we pursue these goals with the firm belief that PR must always benefit and protect the public interest.
Um, really? I’m a member of CPRS, and I completely disagree with that statement. PR is not the legal system, and while in a legal court, every defendant is entitled to a vigorous defence, the same does not apply to the court of public opinion. Practicing ethical PR means we have to work with clients we can trust. I believe we have a right to choose for whom we communicate, and if a client can’t be trusted or has undertaken actions we cannot support, we have every right to deny them our public relations and communications counsel. I’ve seen and heard a bunch of discussions since this statement came out with senior PR folk (me included!) strongly disagreeing with the CPRS statement.
I applaud Navigator and rock-it promotions for having the cahones to sever relations with a client they could no longer believe or trust.
And as an aside, kudos to the PR pros who are helping some of the other players in this situation. I was impressed with this:
I hope they can trust her and tell her the truth and visa versa, because that’s the only way to get reliable, competent public relations and communications counsel.
I saw a news report about a brand that got in hot water for a free concert they threw in Brooklyn. The concert was sponsored by Levis, the jean company, and the “price” of admission was to wear an item of Levis clothing. The news report said “dozens” of fans were turned away for not wearing Levis.
Okay, I thought, another example of a campaign gone wrong. People must have been all up in arms over this. Social media must have been buzzing with negative comments. The brand probably reacted. But no, not really. And that has turned out to be the real lesson here.
Here are the facts: Levis sponsored a free concert in Brooklyn, NY, with popular indie rockers Haim and Sleigh Bells to launch a new marketing campaign “Live in Levis,” where consumers are asked to upload images or write posts about their favorite moments wearing Levi’s products. On ther website, Levis said that in order to get in to the outdoor concert venue, you had to wear Levis clothing. The concert was a huge success, with big crowds and big buzz for the brand. But unlike some other marketing promos we’ve seen, Levis actually enforced the “wear Levis or else” dictum and did turn people away who weren’t sporting their brand.
One (and I repeat, one!) news report in the New York Daily News, mentioned that “fans were upset…to find that they were denied entry…because they weren’t wearing Levi’s jeans…observers told the News scores of ticketed fans showed up without the prescribed attire and were denied entry. They were surprised the corporation so strictly enforced the ban.” A teenager was quoted:
“One guard at the door said ‘I might as well be a CEO. I’m saying ‘you’re fired, you’re fired and you’re fired,’” says Dylan Kelly, 16 of Manhattan. “I saw couples being turned away because the guy wore Levis but the woman had a skirt. Or, if a group of guys had on Levis but one didn’t, they would turn them away.”
The News found two critical tweets quoted. And those weren’t even all that intelligent or critical. I looked all over the interweb to find other critical tweets, but not a one could be found. The only thing I did find was several PR or marketing sites quoting the Daily News article and calling it a “PR nightmare,” saying “Levi’s has landed itself in a little hot water,” “worst possible scenario,” and “sponsorship gone wrong.”
But was it any of those things? I think not. Brand fans were thrilled, if the concert reviews and positive posts from the few days around the concert show. The only ones saying it wasn’t a great experience were a handful of turned-away fans in Brooklyn and the Daily News. Oh, and of course all those PR and marketing critics out there.
I applaud Levis for not caving to these few voices and making more of it than it really was. If this was a genuine backlash, with real media (mainstream or social) reaction, then the company should respond and manage the media crisis. But if the reaction is this small and controlled, sometimes you gotta let the critics have their say without responding, and just rock on.
I was watching a presentation from an international PR agency about trust, and they were talking about what makes a trustworthy spokesperson. Engagement ranked high on the list, right next to integrity. These are important points for your CEO to keep in mind, especially when reacting to a crisis.
A really bad example of how a spokesperson loses all public trust in a crisis is BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward.
In April 2010, a blast at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in history. It took five months for the well to be completely sealed, with oil leaking into the ocean every day. BP was widely condemned for its slow response to the leak, which pumped out around half a million barrels of oil in to the gulf during the first month. The world looked to Hayward for reassurance that the company would fix the situation as quickly as possible to limit the environmental and financial damage. Alas, Mr. Hayward was not the guy for engagement or integrity.
He made a lot (a huge amount!!) of mistakes when it comes to media relations around this crisis. In fact, google his name and you’ll find entire pages from credible newspapers and magazines listing his errors. The worst, undoubtedly, is the one where he forgets this crisis is not about him:
“We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Yikes, your life back, man? What were you thinking? Or how about this one?
“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” (speaking to fellow executives in London about the Gulf oil spill disaster)
There was the time he tried to deflect the blame.
“Well, it wasn’t our accident, but we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up, and that’s what we intend to do…The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people and their processes.”
And of course, then there was the way he completely minimized the impact.
“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.”
And of course my favourite,
“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
By October of that year, Tony Hayward was no longer BP’s CEO.