Thursday, April 3, 2008

PR's Role in Scandals

I love the great city of Detroit. Sure she's got some rough patches, but she's a great city and really gets a bad rap. The city seems to be on the rebound, but unfortunately, her image has not been helped at all by the scandal the "hip hop" mayor of Detroit has been involved in lately.

Basically, the mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, had two police officers fired for their investigation of Kilpatrick and Beatty having an affair. Both Kilpatrick and Beatty denied, under oath, that they had anything to do with firing the two officers and also denied the affair. However, the Detroit Free Press obtained copies of text messages between the two that proved that they were, in fact, having an affair, and were very much involved in the firing of the officers. What's worse is that Kilpatrick spent $8.4 in tax-payer money to mount his defense and eventual settlement. Beatty resigned just a few days after the text message news broke, but Kilpatrick still refuses to do so. Both face multiple felony charges. Full details of the scandal can be found here.

Kilpatrick has now hired a PR person to help him improve his image with all this mess. The PR person is none other than Judy Smith, the same person who tried to help the image of Monica Lewinsky and Republican Senator, Larry Craig. Man, she really knows how to pick clients (or not).

The inspiration for this post is a recent op-ed in the Detroit Free Press by Berl Falbaum, a specialist in crisis communications and part-time professor at Wayne State University. The title of his op-ed sums up exactly what I feel about this whole mess with the mayor: PR Experts Can't Fix a Scandal. How true this is.

I once spoke about this idea with Chris Thomas. Chris is the owner of Salt Lake City-based The Intrepid Group and former spokesman for the family of Elizabeth Smart during her abduction a few years ago. Chris remarked to me that if he ever has a potential client come to him who has "messed up" and they want him to help fix things, he'll only take them on if he sees they are penitent and are willing to admit their mistakes. If not, then there's no deal.

I think this is something often lost on people who don't really know what PR is all about, or even practitioners. To quote Berl Falbaum again, "PR experts can't fix a scandal." Falbaum points out that PR professionals can really only do two things in a scandal: "With their communications and strategic skills, they can enhance good performance or, in case of crises, they can mitigate bad performance." This is sound advice for any PR practitioner. We must counsel our organizations and clients that if they're involved in scandal they need to step up and apologize for what they've done and take action to remedy it (i.e. Detroit's mayor should resign). This strategy is not new (ever heard of the Tylenol and cyanide incident?), yet we still see people and companies being obstinate even when it's widely known they're in the wrong. And stubbornness never works.

A scandal is something I'm sure no PR practitioner wants to be involved in, but we must be prepared regardless. Remember, though, PR experts can't fix a scandal.