A global crisis situation – such as that experienced by VW currently – brings out an ugly side of public relations. A hubristic sadism, or malignant narcissism. I’m exaggerating but that’s my point. Those who feel compelled to comment and criticise their fellow PR practitioners commonly rely on speculation and extrapolation, quickly escalating a reasonable reflection into a full blown attack, based on their own righteousness.
As I commented on a UK blog post titled VW: the self-inflicted scandal of the century (which is pretty good forecasting from a perspective of 2015), there are too many who pontificate – which my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary defines as pretending to be infallible and pompously dogmatic. They reflect predominantly a positivist philosophy, suggesting it would be easy to avoid and control a situation by following what they say a company should have done, should be doing and MUST do going forwards. Such ‘rules’ reflect their own opinion or a form of ‘received wisdom’.
We saw it with Toyota, BP, Thomas Cook, and any other recent crisis of small or large magnitude. Profits of doom and destruction who reflect schadenfreude, with apparent joy in the misery of others. Even worse are those who seek to use high profile crisis situations to promote their own supremacy and services. Hyperbole on top of hyperbole is evident in emotionally powered pieces. Judgement is taken and sentences passed without so much as a hint of an evidence base.
I write as someone who has worked in the motor industry since the late 1980s, I’ve been that PR practitioner dealing with a complex and rapidly emerging crisis (albeit on a much smaller scale and pre-social media). I know how difficult it can be to get information, particularly when you work for a national office of an international operation. But I can only imagine what it is like to be working right now in the VW press office or public relations department.
Rather than rushing to criticise, as professionals shouldn’t we first evaluate the situation based on what we know of the reality of working in public relations? That’s not a world where either PR people are complicit in every ‘scandal’, or at least covering it up. It’s not a place where you can call on PR agencies to swoop in like a superhero or ghostbuster to clean up the mess and put things right by the time the credits roll.
I want to see far more realistic discussion about crisis management in our occupation – where we are mindful of the mental health implications for PR practitioners who are ‘crisis workers’ at the eye of the storm, and recognise the limitations on what we are able to do before, during and after a crisis.
In my chapter on risk, issues and crisis management updated for the 5th edition of Theaker’s Public Relations Handbook that is in production, I called for coping strategies to be included in any crisis management plan – here’s my suggestion:
Paul Seaman has argued at Spiked! that PR practitioners need to champion a “more honest, more humanistic agenda” and avoid participating in a ‘knowing charade’ of a ‘green pantomime’. As much as I agree with his sentiments, it may be too idealistic for PR to claim this position as the corporate activist when faced with pressures to satisfy management demands and a myriad of stakeholder interests requiring that we essentially tell everyone what they wish to hear.
However, I would like to see much more focus in PR on risk communications and helping wider society understand that there are consequences and complications from actions of governments, organisations and publics in an ever changing, complicated world. Not excuses or obfuscation, but shared dialogue particularly in relation to technology and other areas which may be difficult for non-experts (including journalists) to understand. Simplistic communications (such as the marketing-driven promise of environmentally wonderful cars with excellent performance, low cost of ownership, etc etc) are disempowering ultimately. They lead to a false sense of security that can swing into over-reaction, risk aversion and ignoring valid warnings that everything can’t be that good.
The VW case as many others, reveals the hubris of so much crisis management posturing within the PR industry. We are not masters of the universe who can put all ills right. Few of us have the ear of the chiefs of industry – and many of them have little understanding or knowledge of PR. In the motor industry, that often means they think of media as those chaps on Top Gear who the PR team get to say nice things about our cars.
Rule One according to many who pontificate is to apologise. But that’s become a staged performance, a theatre of apologia, a rhetoric of self-defense or image repair, a tick-box action to fulfil public and media expectations. As with VW, it is a meaningless gesture that may take the heat off (if you don’t apologise you’ll be hounded until you do), but doesn’t address either the cause of the crisis or help with its ultimate resolution.
For me, such crisis situations highlight how public relations is part of a team within any organisation. We cannot do our jobs on our own at a heightened time of public and management examination of our professional competence.
As Gilpin and Murphy advocate (in their book Crisis Management in a Complex World), we require a type of expertise based on strong relationships and robust knowledge of the organization; as well as developing competencies in intuition, active sense-making, sensitivity to change, and rapid decision-making. They call for maintaining dialogue within networks of relationships within and outside the organization (including communities of practice to facilitate problem-resolution). These ideas require a shift towards improvisation and away from rational planning and simply applying the rules of those who present one way – their way – of crisis management.
And as professional communicators, can we not move beyond a Homer Simpson view of our fellow public relations practitioners?
Lisa: Dad, do you know what Schadenfreude is?
Homer: No, I don’t know what “shaden-frawde” is. Please tell me, because I’m dying to know.
Lisa: It’s a German term for “shameful joy”, taking pleasure in the suffering of others.
Homer: Oh, come on Lisa. I’m just glad to see him fall flat on his butt!