We did not have a guest for our last PrimeTimePRchat because I wanted to talk about where we are now on PR best practices, observing the PRSA code of ethics, how our industry faces its trust issues and the prevalence of the #PRfail hashtag & what it means for the #PR industry.

My opinion from a professional perspective is that when an organization fumbles, comes across as being tone-deaf or misses the mark during a crisis, ignoring it does nothing, but jumping in to ask questions and looking at all of the moving parts creates a broader understanding of the issue and what other organizations may be facing.

For example, PGE (Pacific Gas and Electric Company) is facing quite a bit of backlash in the news, especially on their @PGE4Me handle their social media well by posting this thank you to firefighters for cleaning up the fires that they (allegedly) started? Regardless of whether or not it is a #PRwin or #PRfail, I think that it is beneficial for our industry to review what’s happing around this crisis rather than simply ignoring it and moving on.

Yet when I received push-back online for supporting the “toxic” nature of the #PRfail hashtag (which is usually journalist calling out PR agency failures but is also used to call out public corporate failures) I checked the PRSA Code of Ethics for guidance. The code states that communications professionals will continually learn. Does that mean that we should only take formal classes and attend conferences or is it beneficial to gather around the virtual water cooler to discuss events of the day, even if some are not going well for a company or organization?

I think it is the latter. Especially since it seems that we are not teaching media relations or crisis communications within the social media-focused public lens at the entry-level. Therefore without this type of informal experience sharing, where will young practitioners learn things such as how to be aware of sentiment, tone, and amplification? Is it not up to more experienced leaders to share that?

I chatted online with a few communications professors in preparation for the chat where I learned that students study both applied and theoretical communications, however, it seems that unless the instructor is a practicing PR professional, most programs do not touch heavily on media relations. I mention this because that’s where we get the most visible #PRfails.

I can find lots of articles on proper media pitching and media relations but it is not listed as a core ethics concept for PRSA. I believe there should there be outreach guidelines and approved best practices around media relations.

Annual global agency profits were down in 2018 and smaller firms were up (PRWeek) largely due to smaller firms having greater involvement and access to senior leadership, with those leaders being easily accessible to both staff and clients. This created better results and likely would translate to improving the constant stream of journalists calling out bad media relations. The PR fail hashtag is not a failure of journalists who point out poor practices but a failure of PR leadership. Turning away from the issues and asking the profession to just be nice is a failure to address the difficult issues that we face.

How do we align our quest for trust and transparency with an emphasis on ethics when we are being too nice? It is not ethical to let the stream of PR fails that our journalist partners are frustrated with continue to go unchecked? Some are worried that calling out poor practices or bad habits in public relations makes us look bad but I believe that it shows the ability to see weaknesses, acknowledge the issues, and gives us a chance to rectify them.

Someone once related PR to cheerleading (which I love in sports, by the way) but I said, “No! I’m not a cheerleader. I am the offensive coordinator.” In sports, coaches are tough and definitely have the hard conversations. Don’t we want to be PR coaches?

Coaches, like leaders, do not just blindly push through plans. They listen and respond to feedback. The entire PR fail hashtag is a giant feedback loop from journalists, other professionals, and consumers. It is telling us where our processes are not working.

Brene Brown says that we build trust in our small, daily actions, not in our superheroic, bold displays. Brown also notes that being open to and leaning into difficult conversations is what great leaders do. How is mismanaging the journalist relationship any part of great PR leadership? In our industry, we can examine how PR builds trust with journalists, often one of our key stakeholders.

In previous PrimeTimePRchat conversations, we frequently mention that PR needs a seat at the table but if we cannot be trusted to manage media contact information with the highest levels of thought and integrity (for example, no spam emails) how can we ask for a seat at the table to lead larger conversations and issues?

We have a “nice” issue in PR where it is preferable to smile and go with the flow rather than to address or call out issues. We are not having the difficult conversations and when you start one, people call you negative. Being ‘Nice’ and being ‘Kind’ are different things. Sometimes the kindest thing to do is to tell someone that they are wrong or to help them identify a weakness. I talk a lot about having difficult conversations and how not looking at issues undermines our profession. We cannot just sit and hope an issue will go away or get better if we ignore it.