PR Flacks: Do The Right Thing

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.”


— Rightly submitted by Distant Cousin

Note To The TTC: There Is A Better Way

One has to wonder if the Adam Giambrone imbroglio has served as welcome relief to the TTC or just furthered the public’s perception of a badly run, highly dysfunctional outfit. Certainly it’s been a juicy distraction for the rank and file front line operators who’d been enduring an annus horribilis so far in 2K10®©™, contending face-to-face with customer dissatisfaction with fare hikes and shoddy service. Mob ire has been diverted, at least temporarily it seems, as local media coverage has turned its slavering, beady-eyed attention to matters of a more carnal nature.

But the respite will be brief and there’s no indication that the TTC and the running of it will be any less a sensitive and exploitable campaign issue in this fall’s election. Hopefully, the TTC has used this break in the assault to recalibrate (to use the Prime Minister’s term) and overhaul its PR approach. The battle, so far, has had little to do with substance and everything to do with optics. There’s no reason to think that’s going to change between now and October 25th.

The question is, who exactly has been giving the TTC PR advice? Not even stopping to wait for an answer because the question was entirely rhetorical, whoever it was, they should be relieved of their duty. Clearly they’ve been napping on the job and prone to waking up with a start and blurting out unhelpful, nonsensical rejoinders. They’ve been off on unauthorized bathroom breaks, rendering themselves oblivious to the shit storm of public discontent swirling around them. Rather than helping the TTC’s cause, their public relations have only further undermined it.

First off, stop using union head Bob Kinnear as the public face of TTC workers. Pugnacious, flinty and defensive is not helping the cause. That old axiom about the best defense being a good offense isn’t always applicable. It only feeds into the public perception of a surly, intransigent work force.

Ditto your Facebook group, tracking and photographing customer misdeeds. Two wrongs do not make a right is an adage that might be useful in this case. And a work to rule campaign? Ba-a-a-a-d idea! Terrible in fact. The public already thinks you don’t work hard enough. Why give them more ammunition?

Your best plan of action now is to dip into your union membership dues and hire yourself a smooth talking, photogenic spokes person. A female would probably be best to undercut the public perception of doughy white bus drivers. Someone perky but not cloying; knowledgeable not condescending. Someone non-threatening.

She will possess daily talking points in order to drive the discourse rather than simply reacting to whatever’s being pushed by other vested interests.

Such as: with a work force of 9,000 or so people, there are bound to be slip ups, let’s call them, occasional displays of poor workmanship. When they are brought to our attention, we will deal with them in an appropriate manner. However, let’s compare those poor interactions with the number of times riders get from point A to B in a, if not blissful manner, at least an entirely uneventful one. Despite the recent woes, that ratio is very likely heavily weighted in the latter’s favour.

Or take some time to explain the TTC’s revenue structure. (You’ll have to speak slowly and deliberately with this as most journalists don’t really like or understand details, being the bigger picture thinkers that they are.) Discuss the difference between operating and capital funding while making sure that everyone realizes the TTC has been chronically underfunded by senior levels of government for over a decade now. Because neither the province nor Ottawa places that much importance on public transportation, there is a much bigger reliance on the fare box for revenue than almost anywhere else in the world. Thus, constant fare hikes. Sure the feds and Queens Park love to build big shiny edifices when it suits their fancy but when it comes to running the system, well, not so much.

Ask the candidates for mayor, who are making vague pledges of getting tough with the union and overhauling the TTC, if they also plan on securing stable, long term funding from the federal and provincial governments or if it’s all just about the empty gesture of being the new sheriff in town. Suggest that if the candidates really want to debate the issues thoroughly they should take a time out from making anger inciting headlines and harping on less than flattering photos and spend some time looking through more thoughtful sources of information such as Steve Munro’s Website for a fair, non-partisan examination of the public transit situation. Then the candidates could offer up ways to make getting around this city better, easier, more enjoyable rather than just leading the pitchfork crew in demanding some sort of frontier justice.

Stoicism not combativeness is what I’m suggesting for the TTC right now. Acknowledge problems but put forth solutions rather than accusations. Be the bigger person in this fight and leave the petty antics and regressive poses to those who aren’t really inclined to make things better. They’re just looking to sell newspapers and get elected.

optically submitted by Urban Sophisticat