It’s safe to say that most PR disasters in corporations aren’t caused by the actions of the public relations staff, but develop from the actions and decisions of corporate decision-makers, often by the CEO. Among the countless errors that executives can and do make, the following are notable in their ability to prevent effective public relations.

Not taking ownership for company errors or wrongdoing

CEOs are usually advised by lawyers not to admit to company wrongdoing because doing so would put the company in a bad position in corporate liability lawsuits. In addition, admission of wrongdoing can cause corporate liability insurance rates to increase. Add that to a natural inclination to avoid making the company look bad, and it’s easy to see why so many CEOs refuse to admit company wrongdoing. Unfortunately, what makes the company look even worse than the original wrongdoing is not owning up to it. That just drags out negative reactions to the wrongdoing by infuriating people the company relies on: customers, employees and government officials, among others.

Most public relations professionals have been in a situation at one time or another when we have counseled the CEO to admit a problem, and had to battle with corporate lawyers who advised the opposite. The CEO must weigh the relative merits of winning in court, and winning in the court of public opinion. Wrongdoing can result in boycotts by customers, and severe reputation damage. All in all, not effective public relations.

Do you remember when United Airlines violently dragged a passenger off an overbooked plane, injuring the passenger? You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to know about it. Video of the incident made its way from shocked passengers on the flight to TV news broadcasts around the world. The CEO issued a non-apology, using what Fortune called “sanitized corporate-speak.” His words: “This is an upsetting event to all of us at United.” Word got out that in communications with employees, he blamed the incident on the behavior of the passenger rather than admitting company responsibility for it. Consumers worldwide were appalled, shared the videos on social media and called for a boycott. Shares of United stock plunged.

Trying to silence critics

It isn’t unusual in some parts of the world for governments to put journalists in jail (or even kill them) to keep them from reporting damaging information. Big companies that attempt to keep critics quiet use more subtle techniques. An example: last year six oil and gas activists were subpoenaed by Martin Marietta Materials, a big Colorado company that provides construction materials to the oil and gas industry, in an attempt to stop them from speaking out. The company fired an employee who had participated in a protest with the activists and then used subpoenas to demand that the activists turn over all communications materials pertaining to the protest.  The activists hired an attorney, went to court, and the judge ruled in their favor. The situation was widely reported in the media. Martin Marietta’s own threatening actions against the activists brought them more negative attention than anything the activists could say.

Staying silent in a crisis

In some companies, it takes a long time – days or weeks – to obtain internal clearances for a public statement. Decisions about whether or not to say something to the media and on social media, and if so what to say and who should say it, are made by committee or by consensus in such organizations, to the detriment of the companies. In a crisis, a CEO has to take charge and make sure a statement is made very quickly. Quickly means hours, not days. A statement may be a simple announcement that the company is looking into the facts surrounding the crisis and will make another announcement as soon as there is more information.

Too often, corporate lawyers tell CEOs to remain silent in crises and CEOs listen to them. Nobody likes to announce bad news, but it’s really important to do it as quickly as possible. When the bad news inevitably gets out, the company will be accused of hiding the negative information, thereby being blamed for two negatives instead of one. Not commenting to the media allows reporters to tell the story as they see it, without any corporate input.

Crisis management is made much easier by making advance preparations. Getting PR help in crisis communications planning will pay off hugely in the event of a crisis situation. With proper planning, CEOs can respond intelligently and quickly in a crisis.

Not making PR a high priority

CEOs who understand and value the function of public relations/corporate communications make it a high priority in their companies and have it report to them directly. When a senior PR professional is a direct report, the CEO has a personal advisor and sounding board on the corporate reputation consequences of key decisions. This is a function that other senior staff, including marketing executives, are usually not as well-positioned to serve. If a company is too small to afford a senior-level PR professional on staff, the CEO would be wise to look outside the company for a consultant to fill this role. The heads of boutique PR firms that are members of PR Boutiques International are a good resource for this.

Public relations, whether handled internally or by an outside agency, is a significant budget item. Sometimes the actions of the CEO thwart the ability of the public relations professionals to do effective public relations. No matter how good a job the PR department does of developing communications strategies, the time and energy required to smooth over executive PR blunders can make it impossible to carry out positive PR initiatives.

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