PR: A Fail-Safe Strategy

Our CEO spoke to the President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Sarah Pinch. She explains why there’s no such thing as a PR disaster…


‘There’s no such thing as a public relations disaster. There are operational disasters that then need management. I worked for FirstGroup plc when a bus driver in Plymouth killed a passenger. My advice from the beginning was that we had to say sorry immediately. And then whatever we can learn and whatever changes we need to make, we have to make.

‘Saying sorry is not admitting fault: it wasn’t our fault. There was nothing in that man’s previous life that could have hinted of the horrific crime he committed. There’s often a lot of confusion with organisations sometimes taking far too long to say sorry. I am sure that’s because lawyers tell them they can’t, but saying sorry is not the same as saying, “I’m responsible.” Their public relations advice would generally be to say sorry.’

Sarah Pinch is President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. She notes that, according to research by the Institute, public relations professionals are getting involved in areas of work beyond media relations: marketing, branding, online content, sponsorship, stakeholder mapping, and stakeholder engagement. They are now asked for advice on strategic decisions, being involved at a much earlier stage. Organisations understand the impact that good reputational advice can have on their business.


PR: History Won’t Repeat Itself


‘What could we have done differently? There was no call on transport providers to CRB check all staff – only drivers providing dedicated school bus services. This guy was operating a general service. He happened to pick up a student who was 17, on her way to college. If we had done a CRB check, would we have still employed him? Yes. He had no previous convictions, but my advice was to do CRB checks on all staff. When I was there we did this.

‘We contributed to the funeral; the Chief Executive wanted to attend but the family asked him not to, so we didn’t. We also destroyed the vehicle in which the victim had been killed. With those things, they didn’t cross over anything, they didn’t put lipstick on any pig. It was still a horrific situation. I’m proud that a letter was written back from the girl’s mother thanking us for destroying the vehicle. It was the least we could have done.’


Two-Way Interaction Makes for Successful PR


In order for public relations professionals to avoid being perceived as those who can dress up bad situations to look as though they are otherwise, they need to be involved in the two-way flow of relations with the public, encouraging listening as well as telling or showing and also encouraging organisations to act upon what is heard appropriately.

Sarah explained the culture change that is occurring: ‘I have worked in organisations where people understand the need to seek advice but are still in denial about following it, and I think that comes down to being frightened as to what is going to come out of it. We’ve all been in situations personally where we’ve thought, “Gosh, if I ask a person what they think of what I did, they’re not going to tell me what I want to hear.” I think mature organisations are prepared to listen to everybody and prepared to make changes where they need to.’

How important do you think PR mechanisms are when it comes to professional bodies? Let us know in the comments!


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