And another thing….

DMfFRYxWsAERzweI am intrigued by a blog follow-up to a Twitter conversation with a respected communications consultant Laura Sutherland regarding crisis management and following a Twitter conversation we enjoyed recently.

I’ve not met Laura. My loss because looking at her Twitter profile I can see that apart from anything else, she has a beautiful dog, so at least we share one passion in life.

I tend to prefer my dogs to most people.

I had wanted to continue the conversation, but her blog does not have a comment facility, so here goes.

Her argument was, “that in a crisis (in this conversation, where it’s the ‘fault’ of the client/organisation), public relations practitioners have to fact find before reporting or discussing the matter. Fact finding is the first step to understanding the situation and it also allows the practitioner to be able to be fully informed when writing statements and briefings.” 

I agree with every word of that. Fact discovery is in my experience the hardest thing in crisis management. Usually because nobody knows the facts. Sometimes because they are wrong about the facts. And on odd occasions they just lie. I have also blogged about the importance of ‘asking questions.’  And I have described asking “why do we do that?” as the most important question a communications director can ask.

I’ve rarely worked with business leaders who know the answers themselves. My job has nearly always been to try to work out what is the truth in any situation. I’m not sure I have ever succeeded!

Laura then says that I tweeted “that the number one priority was to protect the reputation of the client/organisation.”  She agreed with this, and added that “public relations has a duty to inform ‘publics’ of the facts.” She defines the publics as “employees, stakeholders, shareholders, media, government…”

I agree with all of that too. My caveat is to look more closely at the word “facts.”

We live in a time when a new generation seems to have discovered for their first time that much news is what they might call “fake”, that “facts” are not always what they are purported to be, and that so many people (at least those hurling abuse at me on Twitter) seem to believe that any opinion with which they disagree is “a  lie!”

Lying seems to be the thing of the moment. Not that more people lie but that more people think others do.

In the PR business the greatest skill is to manipulate the actuality. I have prided myself on developing the ability to never lie but to be as economical or generous with the truth as any situation will allow. If you want someone to speak as if they know the truth hire a priest (not my priest because he used to own a PR agency), but a priest who thinks they have seen the light!

In my opinion every single idea, concept, thought and action is a matter of relativity, I do not hold with absolutes. That way lies dictatorship and totalitarianism. I am deeply suspicious of anybody who appears to believe that they really know the truth about anything. I only know that I have access to versions of the truth.

I can’t really understand why anyone, except those coming to the realisation to the first time as the grow up in the world, should think any of this is new, or unless they were just deluded previously and believed that news was truth and facts were indisputable.

It is therefore beholden on communications practitioners now more than ever given these widespread perceptions in society to qualify any “fact.”

As a communicator I’ve always regarded a fact as whatever it is I can persuade someone to believe is one, or that someone else persuades me to believe. I can’t think I have ever encountered a fact that cannot be differently presented. If that were possible then I’m not sure why anybody would want to pay a PR person to work for them. They could just let the facts speak for themselves.

Laura quotes the definition of PR used by the UK CIPR which is “Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.
“Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

There are numerous such definitions around the world. They pretty much all amount to the same thing, that PR is about earning, building, promoting, protecting and recovering relations of employer/client with publics.

What the definition does not include is the purpose of those relations with publics. I addressed what I think of as that purpose in my opinion sits behind these definitions in a chapter I scribbled for the esteemed FuturePRoof repository of PR wisdom: “The Purpose of PR.” 

A definition of PR that leaves the matter at establishing “mutual understanding” seems to cover the means but not the ends of the matter.

It perhaps explains why so many people who work in PR who I come across seem to be under the impression that PR outputs are the ends. Goodwill and understanding are in my opinion the means.

The ends are concerned with change. Depending on the context that may be to change commercial productivity, profitability and return on investment; or to change (or avoid change to) societal behaviour through a special interest cause, politics or government.

Good reputation is not an end. It is a means to achieving those (or other) objectives in fulfillment of a defined purpose for an organisation or individuals.

Laura goes on to refer to my favourite subject – Trust. She argues that “relationships are built on trust.” I could not agree more. One of my great mentors was Al Golin. Al invented the concept of “The Trust Bank” for his first major client McDonald’s. His simple and insightful premise was that “if you don’t earn trust today you will lose your business tomorrow.”

However Laura then says “Trust is built on the reliability of the truth. How on earth can a practitioner not tell the truth if our role is with the “aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour”?”

This is to assume that the concepts of trust and truth are absolutes. PR is in the words of the Harold Burson founder of the agency I work for, “the business of persuasion” and in the words of its first employee Bob Leaf, “the art of perception.” Incidentally these are the titles of their books.

All PR is concerned with persuasion and perception. It is about the use of one to create, reinforce or challenge the other.

In the highly regulated world of marketing things are different. Any statement, promise, strap-line or slogan are subject to scrutiny under and control of legislation and regulation.

An advertiser has to prove that something is a fact, or at least what everybody can agree on as being what they think is a fact. This task was comparatively straightforward in the analogue age.

It is of course much tougher in the digital one. It is much harder to nail people down to be submitted to such scrutiny or control. This is a massive challenge in the online era.

However, for communications the same legislation and regulation does not apply other than to the extent that the laws of libel and slander apply in different jurisdictions around the world.

My first big corporate crisis management challenge hit me on the first day of my appointment in 1994 as UK Head of Comms for McDonald’s when I inherited what was to become the longest lasting and one of the most expensive, and arguably pointless, legal trials in English legal history – what became known as “McLibel.”

This action was brought by McDonald’s against two anarchist campaigners who had communicated matters which the corporation regarded as libelous. Five years later it could be said that none of us were the wiser!

The defendants, my old ‘pals’ Dave and Helen (Helen and I talk on Twitter now so we must be pals!) proved if anything was proven that communication is nearly always a matter of perception and that truth is a better argued opinion.

In this context, Laura argues “that I wouldn’t work with a client if a) they didn’t tell the truth or b) wouldn’t allow me access to the facts, so I was informed. That’s me – led by ethics, morals and doing what’s right.”

All I can say is that Laura must live in a much more straightforward world than mine. My greatest challenge has always been to work out what i think the truth might be, but I don’t think I’ve ever known what it is.

Back in 1995 I originated an approach to understanding reputation which I called “The Reality Gap,” which of course I now use as the title for this blog and my Twitter account (sometimes). I devised this initially for the UK board of McDonald’s but have used it in different versions since then with my subsequent masters at Microsoft, BT and G4S.

The Reality Gap test looks at Purpose, Promise, Practice and Perception (sometimes with Prejudice thrown in as an additional filter) to help business leaders understand that what they think might be a “PR problem” is a reality problem. The Reality Gap identifies differences between what is said, what is done and what is thought.

Over the decades I have found this to be a useful way to gently guide people to an understanding that if they want to change an image they might need to change a reality, or decide to mitigate it as the best option.

The reality gap scenarios

Laura has written as someone who I think as only ever worked as a PR consultant. She has more experience of this than me, as I have only been a consultant for five years. Before that I was an “in-house” comms practitioner or in political campaign management for the other 35 years.

Whilst in-house I was advised by over 100 different PR agencies around the world at last count and hired and managed around 20 of them directly, and also fired most of them at one point or another. So I have seen the crisis comms challenge from these different perspectives.

During this time I have spent as much time helping bosses to avoid an issue becoming a crisis (I usually define a crisis as an issue that somebody finds out about) as I have managing crises and helping them to recover from them.

I prefer the avoidance part and that is what most of my consultancy work has involved. I am invariably heard to say (I think it might even be on my Linked In profile) that “if you’ve heard of my work it is because something went wrong.”

My job has mostly been to try to avoid crises happening in the first place. In my opinion the best way to manage a crisis is to avoid having one.

Throughout these experiences I am struggling to pinpoint any particular facts or truths of any matter which I could not now, and did not then, argue both ways.

As lawyers do not ask their clients, or want to know, of they are guilty because the law presumes innocence until ruled otherwise, I have always considered by role as being to represent an argument. Whether the argument is right or wrong is for others to judge.

That said, I am not as I have had occasion to describe colleagues “an ethics free zone” (you know who you are!). Whether as a campaigner, a comms practitioner, or as a consultant, I have chosen who to work for and who not.

To the annoyance of my consultancy’s successive finance directors my list of clients I won’t work for is longer than it should be to have helped their balance sheet.

That personal ethical judgement on my part does not prevent me from being an adviser or advocate for an employer or client where I do not know what the truth of the matter is. It would prevent me working for them if I disapprove of the truth which I believe.

These are rarely black and white matters, although I’m pleased for Laura if she has found them to be so. My life has always been more complicated than that!

Advising a client back in 2013 who had a particularly tricky and complex ethical policy choice  to make, a colleague and I originated what we called the LEADS methodology. We developed a workshop format for this corporations global CEO, and directors of comms, marketing, finance and HR and their legal counsel, to test various scenarios for policy setting concerned with something which could have potentially created a geopolitical crisis.


We tested options against what I call the “Beyond Legal” point. In my experience most board directors are only interested in one question “will I go to jail if we do this?” or perhaps two if you include “will I lose my job/bonus/yacht?”

LEADS assumes that we’ve passed the “not going to jail” test and then subjects options to tests of being Ethical, Acceptable, Defensible and Sensible. I’ve used this methodology many times now with different clients and not one has failed to end up changing a proposed course of action as a result.

In her blog, Laura writes that I  “said he (I) would do whatever the client asked as he was paid by them. I think that says a lot.” I don’t think I said that, but who knows – I delete my tweets daily. If I did say that then I was wrong.

What I meant to say was that the only “public” to which i have a duty is my employer, because they pay me. Not because it is about the money, but because I have a contract with them as employer or client to work for their interests and not for anybody else’s interests. That is my duty.

I would consider it to be the height of unprofessional behaviour to work against the interests of my employer. it is not something I could even consider doing.

I believe in loyalty above all else and I am loyal to every company and organisation I work for.

I’m brand loyal enough to use Shell petrol when I can, I love to eat McDonald’s food, I only use Microsoft software and BT telephones. If I ever needed security or PR services I would choose G4S and Burson-Marsteller respectively. Although I haven’t voted Conservative since 1992, I could never vote for any other party.

I take duty and loyalty seriously and would never break either act of trust.

That said, I have frequently been in the position to challenge and try to change things behind closed doors, that is always the role of the communications practitioner and often for a consultant. Thinking back to the McLibel case, I don’t know of any practitioner or consultant who did not advise against it before, during and after.

But giving your advice and having it taken are two different things. I often quote my dearest friend, reverse mentor, and “Number 2” at McDonald’s Eddie Bensilum who is now one of the world leaders in crisis management consultancy.

When talking of the McLibel case and our work trying to limit the damage to reputation from it, she used to say that it was an example of “having to play the card you are dealt, not the one you would have chosen.” Wise words.

Laura goes on (sorry she doesn’t “go on” but I can’t think of a better phrase, maybe… Laura continues… “He (I) made out that anyone signed up to a membership organisation, I think because they are bound by a code of conduct, was playing in a ‘club’. He then said he owed the public nothing.”

I described the CIPR and PRCA as “clubs” because that is what they are. It is not meant on my part to have any negative connotations but simply to observe that they are voluntary groups/industry associations bound together by voluntary membership. If you are a member, and I have been a Fellow of the first and a corporate member of the second, then you sign up to their rules and ethical codes.

All well and good. But it is voluntary, they do not “own” PR. Yesterday I read a tweet from somebody attacking a journalist for saying that the infamous and now late Max Clifford had “set the rules for PR” by arguing that “the rules of PR are set by the PRCA.” What an absolute absurdity, on both counts.

Firstly Clifford didn’t set rules, if at all, for anyone other than himself. And second the PRCA sets rules for PRCA members, not for “PR.”

I know that many people in CIPR/PRCA aim to make PR a profession, but frankly I don’t see how that could happen. A profession is defined by the inability of practitioners to work in that field without membership of a professional body.

It is so with lawyers, doctors, and even the political agent I used to be. To be employed they have to study, qualify and be sanctioned by a professional body who can also prevent them from working. I can’t se how that could ever be the case for PR, which is a loose association of related disciplines and trades.

If PR were so narrowly cast then surely parts of the business would simply rebrand themselves. Indeed this is already happening in the wake of the Bell-Pottinger debacle, the absurd destruction of a  leader in my field in my opinion.

Those who practice issues management, campaign management and manipulation, and serious sharp end crisis management will surely just stop using the term PR, if indeed they do now anyway? The beneficiaries will be the management consultants, law firms, risk managers, and business professional organisations who already mop up much of this work, because frankly they are better at it.

Laura continues… “What I was talking about was ‘publics’ – the very people the organisation is trying to build relationships with and influence…. to earn respect as a brand, you need to be trusted. Your ‘publics’ need to trust you in order to buy from you or work with you…. Honesty, transparency and ethical working is what most businesses work towards. Big or small…./ We have a duty to the public. Yes there might be damage but our job is to manage it and do the right thing. Pros give the best advice and that does not include lying.”

Blimey oh Riley.

I sort of agree with all of that, except the line about owing a duty to the public. I think the rest of it is covered by my earlier comments about means versus ends.

Of course PR people need to build relations with publics as a means to an end, but the end is not the relations. And I can’t see why anybody would include “the (general) public” in those list of relevant publics unless you have the misfortune (sorry – politics showing through!)  to work in the public sector.

Even then I might well argue that your duty working in the public sector is to your government employer, possibly not to the taxpayer, and definitely not to the service receiver.

I have never worked for a government (except as a temporary student job in pre-history and as a consultant for foreign governments more recently) but if I had I would regard my absolute duty and loyalty to be given to my employer and not to “the public” particularly if the interests which were perceived to be those of government and public differed.

Even as a temp in the old Department of Social Security counting paper clips I was basically instructed that if I ever told anybody how many paper clips there were, they’d have to shoot me!

But then politically I’m opposed to most if not on extreme occasions all government, so I wouldn’t be in that position.

Laura then makes a point about reputation. she says “in order for things to get better, you have to admit your wrong doing and hold your hands up to say you got it wrong. I’d advise all clients to do the right thing.

This means there will inevitably be some damage to reputation and it’s up to the practitioner to manage the damage with a strategy. But from here, it’s the role of public relations to advise on how to rebuild relationships and rebuild trust.”

Hmm. I agree that to change the reality, as I referenced earlier with “The reality Gap” test, if the employer/client wants to change then yes they need to face reality and learn from it. But doing that in public might not be in their best interests.

As my only concern is their best interests – after all why would they employ me if I had anybody else’s interests in mind – why would I act in such a way as to damage them?

Laura adds: “The very point that there might be a crisis in the first place, indicates the need for better risk assessment, better warning systems in place, a revision of personnel and processes and the need for a solid issues and crisis management communications plan.”

I couldn’t agree more! But in probably half of the cases I’ve been involved with it was too late for that. The bigger the organisation and the more complex its operations, particularly if involving partner relationships and convoluted supply chains, the more likely it is that even with the best preparations, it’s impossible to catch everything.

As a consultant I’ve spent countless hours quizzing CEOs and directors who in the heat of crisis just can’t answer the question “Do we do what they say we are doing?” And the further we travel down the corporate food chain the more likely it is that people just lie to me. So do I take what they say as the facts and the truth or do I form my own best judgement based on my perceptions and gut-instinct? Invariably it’s me taking a punt!

The same goes for standing your ground. As an in-house director I have (I think at last count) been threatened with the sack on three occasions if I pursued a particular course of action. Luckily for me on two of them I was proved right and on the third the CEO was fired before he could fire me.

I would not have spent the time and effort responding to Laura in such detail and at such length if I had not thought she had raised some extremely interesting and important points. She is clearly a first-rate consultant, any consultant who challenges the client is off to a good start in my book, and has made some thoughtful and insightful points in her blog and in our earlier Twitter conversation.

Mind you as I’ve been more or less retired for the last two years and I retire for good next month, I do have time on my hands to rant even more than in the past!

I am grateful to Laura (who i hope to meet one day) for provoking this fascinating (at least to me) discourse.

I agree with her on most points, but I have to disagree on the fundamental argument she makes that PR people have a duty to “the public.” I have never had a duty to the public and if I was a client again I would certainly not hire anybody who thought that they were working in anybody’s interests except mine. I would consider that a waste of money and downright dangerous to bring someone I couldn’t trust to be on my side into the fold. Intelligent and forthright counsel is one thing, biting the hand that feeds me is another.

I refer back to my oft quoted comment from a former CEO who once wrote in a Christmas card to me – “thank you for all your advice this year, you complete bastard.” the advice I gave him, which he resented and did not want, but somewhat ungraciously accepted, was advice to him as my boss. I would have never and will never share it with anybody else, ever.

The point of paying a “trusted counsel” is that they should be trusted to look after your interests first and last.


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