GG’s Emily Bell explains why PR can’t redeem a damaged reputation if the underlying issues remain.
Typically, when my turn to write a blog comes around, there’s some heinous celebrity apology or tone-deaf corporate statement to critique. It’s easy enough to draw actionable takeaways for public relations professionals from the latest communications mishap trending on Twitter.
These past few weeks, however, I’ve observed several cases where egregious public relations mismanagement was just the tip of the iceberg for much larger systemic failures. These are cases where even the best PR strategy could not salvage the reputational damage caused by cowardly leadership, and where it feels facile to critique the communications when there are so many deeper issues at play.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki exemplified a fundamental shortcoming of PR last week when she mocked an NPR reporter for suggesting that the federal government should provide widespread rapid COVID tests for free, something that many other developed nations have been doing throughout the pandemic.
Psaki’s sarcastic response came across as mean-spirited and out-of-touch – but even if she had responded in a more reasonable, compassionate way, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that nearly two years into a pandemic that has killed more than 800,000 Americans, our leaders have failed to muster the political will to deploy the most basic public health interventions.
The latest comms crisis for Amazon also exemplifies the limitations of PR. This weekend, six workers tragically died at an Amazon distribution center when it was struck by tornadoes. Allegedly, management prevented them from leaving the facility or seeking shelter ahead of the storm. Official statements from the company and CEO Jeff Bezos contained the sort of empty “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric that we associate with do-nothing leaders in the wake of mass tragedies.
But what makes the statements ring even hollower is Amazon’s well-documented track record of workplace abuse and negligence, including allegations that workers are not allowed to take regular bathroom breaks and, in one particularly horrifying case, that a worker who collapsed from a heart attack on the warehouse floor did not receive medical attention for nearly 20 minutes. In response, Amazon has doubled down on both positive PR and marketing efforts designed to spotlight satisfied employees, as well as smear campaigns against activist employees.
True, Amazon’s PR efforts are often messy and tone-deaf, but the ultimate reason the company struggles with consumer perception is because you cannot message your way out of unethical labor practices, and there is no magical turn of phrase that can prevent future tragedies from occurring if Amazon refuses to take accountability for its dangerous workplace conditions.
So what’s the takeaway for PR professionals here? How can we do effective brand management for organizations with screwed up priorities?
Simply put, we cannot. Even the most thoughtful strategy and execution cannot cover for the failure of leadership to do the right thing, and even the best PR pros need good source material to do effective storytelling. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that our communications work can only be as strong as an organization’s values, and to have the humility and foresight to know when to cut our losses on a client that isn’t prepared to take responsibility for its impact on constituents, employees, and the wider community.