Posted by: Kristen Ridley | January 22, 2013

Yikes! Quintessential “What not to do”

Mistake flamesI have long held the general view that having an in-house communications team, or at least “a” communications person on staff in the organization is the right choice, particularly in corporate environments, as opposed to hiring external consultants or PR firms to deliver the bulk of the organization’s communications activities. This is not because I have any  issue with consultants or PR agencies. In fact, I have a number of colleagues/friends who are communications consultants, and they are all exceptionally talented, highly respected and tremendously successful at what they do. In certain circumstances – for an unusual project, perhaps something that requires a specialized skill set or knowledge your internal people don’t have, when time is an issue – or when it’s just too big to handle on your own, hiring in the assistance you need can be a very smart choice.

The challenge, or perhaps more accurately the risk you take when you hire externally is to be absolutely certain you thoroughly understand what will be done and how it will be done, and to have someone inside the organization managing the relationship with an external provider of communication services to ensure that the key things are happening and that all activities and decisions are being made in your organization’s best interest.

What brought this subject back to top of mind for me was the recent very unfortunate situation with the city of Hamilton, Ontario hiring an Ottawa-based PR firm to create and launch a website and other activities to highlight the city and all it has to offer. The campaign went badly sideways due to some mishandling and lack of understanding on the part of the PR firm, and quickly became – at least to the people of Hamilton – a debacle of epic proportions.

As I read through the article, and looked up some of the Tweets resulting from the mistakes made by the PR firm, I thought a few things.

Truthfully, the very first thing I thought – as a Torontonian – was: “Thank goodness that firm wasn’t here in Toronto! Half the country already dislikes us, and thinks WE think we’re ‘the centre of the universe’ so it would have been even WORSE if that firm was located here!”

But more to the point, the whole situation was a very good reminder of some key things you need to do or think about before you release information to any of your stakeholders, and that’s regardless of whether you’re doing things with an in-house communication team or with an agency:

Know and understand the people you are talking to – this really should be so basic and fundamental that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned, but if you read the article about the Hamilton campaign, you’ll see that this is the very first – and, ultimately, the most critical – mistake the agency made in running the campaign. I think we all remember the old “to ASSUME makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”” saying, but boy did forgetting that [I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here and going with “forget” rather than “ignore”] bite that PR firm on the butt big time!

Regardless of what you are doing, how big or small a project, or what your ultimate objective is, one of the most important things you have to do is understand your audience. Knowing who they are, what they know about your topic and how they feel, or may feel, about it is absolutely paramount if you hope to realize the response you are hoping for. That means doing your homework, researching the audience, and – hey! here’s a revolutionary thought! – even talking to members of the target audience up-front to get a sense of what you are likely to be dealing with can head off a whole WHACK of problems. Otherwise, you could be spending double, or even triple the amount of time doing very messy and painful damage-control after the fact, when just a little audience evaluation in advance could have avoided the whole kerfuffle that took place in Hamilton.

But let me just say, in fairness, it is much easier to avoid such a situation when you are part of the organization, as opposed to an external consultant coming in from outside to work with the company’s constituents. When you are part of the organization, you are continuously connecting with, talking to, and hearing from, the various audiences the organization communicates with. When you already have an established relationship with your audiences, you can quickly and easily take a temperature on an issue or get a reaction to a suggested approach or communication to decide whether things are good as planned, or whether you need to do some adjustment before going ahead.

So . . .

The right people need to be in charge – our current super-connected, and mine-filled environment can make for a very unpleasant result if we don’t handle things correctly. And while, as I already noted, there are absolutely situations where a consultant or a PR firm can be the right solution, there MUST be someone from the organization working very closely with the consultant to ensure that the needs and perspectives of your organization’s stakeholders are acknowledged and respected in ways that produce successful results.

No matter how talented the team from a consultant may be, they don’t know either your business or your audiences the way you do. How could they? They are working with many different clients on any given week, and the team working on your project are very likely working on multiple other projects at the same time. That doesn’t mean they can’t do great work for all their clients, but regardless, the people who will ultimately succeed or fail based on the actions taken by the consultant on your behalf is YOUR ORGANIZATION! So, no matter how good the consultant is, it’s in your company’s best interest for someone from the company to be very deeply involved in what activities are done, how they are done, and what the overall plan is for managing those activities. Because regardless of how the project turns out, the agency will go on to other projects, while you will still be managing the relationships with your organizations partners, so the buck stops with you.

Which leads neatly into . . .

Take responsibility for what you do – nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and it isn’t necessarily the mistake itself that will drown you. No, as the PR agency in this situation unfortunately demonstrates, it is more often how you handle the fact that you made a mistake that will determine your eventual fate.

What’s particularly unfortunate about this situation, is that as a PR agency, the expectation of a client hiring you – and rightly so – is that you are an expert in public relations and that you have the expertise to effectively advise a company hiring your services on how to handle public relations issues.

So, when the agency itself not only makes some bad decisions that negatively affect the results of the project, for that agency to then: a) look for someone else to blame, as with the Pinterest board photos, and, b) then go hide behind “No comment” when things really start to hit the fan, is really, REALLY a bad decision, that is not only not going to make the whole thing go away, but is going to highlight that you probably are not qualified to be advising clients on how to handle public relations issues.

I am pretty sure that every one of my communicator friends would agree that if we had been involved in this situation, and it had been our responsibility to advise our CEO or President as to what to do once all the negative reaction started piling up and hitting the news, not one of us would have suggested refusing to speak to the media about the matter.

No, in fact most of the communicators I know and respect  would have told their CEO:

“Look, this is difficult, and we made some bad choices, but at this point, we simply have to go out there and admit that we made mistakes and accept the responsibility for it. We also need to apologize to our city’s residents, and tell them how we’re going to adjust things in the short term, and what we’ll do in the future to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

In this case, the city of Hamilton had to eat the crow, and they had to make the decision to pull the website launched by the PR firm, despite having paid a substantial amount of taxpayer dollars to create it. So good for the city even though I’m sure it was painful, because somebody had to stop the bleeding on this.

One more time I want to reiterate that I have nothing against hiring consultants or PR agencies. If you hire the right people, and work with them in the right way, a consultant can be an amazing choice to help an organization do something you couldn’t do on your own, or at least couldn’t do as well or as cost-effectively as a specialist can.

But if you are going to hire an outside person or company, you need to remember that no matter who you hire, or how things go, at the end of the day YOUR ORGANIZATION is who the audience will either love or tweet to death, so you better make sure you are leading the way if your company’s name is on the website/brochure/event.

But it sure was a great communications case-study on “what not to do”. Let us all take a lesson and thank our lucky stars it wasn’t us.


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