James Hoggan, owner and founder of Hoggan & Associates shares this perhaps apocryphal story in his and Richard D. Littlemore’s excellent book Do The Right Thing: PR Tips for a Skeptical Public:
‘A wealthy New York businessman hires a senior public relations consultant and says to him, “I have a reputation for being a real S.O.B. and I want you to change that.” The PR consultant responds, “Absolutely. But first you’ll have to stop being an S.O.B.”’
The moral of the story and the book came to mind after recently reading our Urban Sophisticat’s scathing observations regarding the public relations industry. I, too, am upset about public relations firms’ use of nefarious tactics on behalf of their clients (the names of Bryant, Mulroney and Navigator quickly come to mind) but, unlike Urban Sophisticat or the late Bill Hicks, am not disposed to throw all PR firms and personnel into one bucket.
It was primarily Hoggan’s book and corporate mission statement that altered my view of all public relations firms as Darth Vader spawns. Hoggan & Associates is an award-winning Canadian corporate communications and public affairs firm that touts a number of provincial and municipal governments, real estate development companies, high tech firms, pharmaceuticals, forest industry giants, resorts and academic institutions as clients.
What is hugely refreshing about Hoggan’s approach to public relations is the mandate that all clients must adhere to the company’s three golden rules:
1. Do the right thing;
2. Be seen doing the right thing; and
3. Don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up.
Hoggan in his book lambastes the public relations industry for going over to the “Dark Side” and using “Darth Vader” tactics to spread misinformation and mistruths on behalf of clients thereby eroding public trust and confidence. He strongly believes his industry is in the mire because the task of transmitting a client’s truthful information, however good, or disturbing and damaging it may be at the time, has been replaced with spin and dishonest tactics. It his belief that, sooner than later, the public realizes it has been deceived by individuals or companies and their PR hacks and resents that deceit deeply. This statement resonates as it is fair to say that most of us believe, for example, that governments, politicians and oil companies lie to us all the time. In fact, we expect it, so cynical is our perception of public relations and the individuals or institutions involved. Sadly, our media spends more time analyzing spin tactics utilized by individuals and companies than deploring the fact that honesty and integrity, core values we endeavour to instil in our young, have gone to hell in a hand basket when it comes to communicating to the public.
I praise Jim Hoggan and his firm for undertaking the uphill battle of putting honesty and integrity back into the public relations industry. He advises his clients to ‘do the right thing’ when representing themselves (whether in crisis management mode or not) to the public. His experience has taught him that the public is willing to forgive individual, corporate or governmental trangressions if all the disturbing information is honestly revealed along with a sincere apology as soon as possible. Using the traditional media routes and social media applications to get points across and to establish or repair one’s reputation is also absolutely the right thing to do, as long as the message is honest and true.
This is not the first time Hoggan has taken it upon himself to re-introduce transparency into his industry’s toolbox. For five years, earlier in this decade, he and his firm presented public relations tips to readers of The Vancouver Sun. By sharing these nuggets with the public, Hoggan reinforced that how one communicates is as consequential as what one communicates. He has and continues to ‘walk the talk’ by countering climate science misinformation through his blog DeSmogBlog and contributing ideas and articles to the energy boom website which investigates alternative energy sources.
I’ll let him have the final words in this submission: “Public Relations, practiced well and in good conscience, is a force for good. The whole goal is to improve communications and increase understanding between and among people…So individuals and organizations of all types should not shy away from PR. On the contrary, in the current atmosphere of mistrust, good communications advice is more necessary than ever. But we should all be wary of playing around the edges-of doing things that “seem justifiable in the circumstances.” Ask yourself as often as you can, if the thing you are about to do would make you proud if your mother, your child, or your friendly government regulator was looking over your shoulder. If the answer is no, then what you are doing is not “public relations”-at least, not as I would define it….Ask yourself:” What’s the right thing to do?” The answer can only help.”