Tell the truth. (Duh!)

Michael Grimaldi

This simple question appeared a few weeks ago on the discussion page of a LinkedIn group:

“I’m getting ready to conduct media training with folks in my organization. Anyone have lessons learned from working with media that they would like to share?”

There were lots of ideas – four per day on average in the two months after the question was asked. My contribution was pretty simple: Start with the truth.

Seems strange, doesn’t it? Would a professional public relations practitioner do anything else?

As it turns out, that could be. I recently asked a reporting class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City what they thought the role of a public relations person was. The first answer: “Manipulative.” And a recent trade media story reports that a university PR student commented in an ethics class, “PR people are supposed to lie.”

Wrong! You’ll get caught if you lie, and the chances of getting caught grow daily with the exponential public adoption of social media. As for “manipulative” – Well, a spin doctor, to me, is somebody with advanced engineering degrees and a specialty in centrifuges, not a PR pro.

Hard as it may be, the truth must be embraced in public relations. That can be very scary when there is really bad news.

Happily, our Trozzolo Communications Group clients are companies and organizations with the right intentions and high integrity. Still, bad things happen or actions are perceived negatively when the opposite was intended. What to do then? Here’s a process:

First, it’s very important that the public relations counselor has all the information about a bad situation. With wrong or partial information, the PR pro could give advice that is actually counterproductive to restoring or sustaining a positive reputation.

Next, a good PR pro will ask questions that will explore the essence of developments – the truth, if you will. The questions will focus on motives of the people involved, unintended and intended consequences of activity, and extenuating circumstances.

Next, the PR pro will establish a position – a theme and associated messages – drawn not only from the situation at hand, but also from the company’s or the organization’s vision, mission and brand. To develop a position that derives from anything else will be disingenuous and unpersuasive to people important to the company.

Sometimes, telling the truth means “biting the bullet” or “taking a hit” and disclosing bad behavior or adverse outcomes that could or should have been avoided. Nevertheless, honesty is still the right choice. An organization’s credibility is its most important asset, and once damaged, it is difficult to repair and restore.

The negative blow can be softened not only by giving a prompt, candid and accurate explanation, but also by describing what is being done to make sure the bad thing doesn’t happen again. Public forgiveness is often generous when remorse is genuine and corrective action is prompt.

For best results, advance preparation is essential. We have helped companies prepare crisis communications plans by asking, “What keeps the C-suite awake at night?” We then equipped the company to respond, should those bad things happen. This work builds internal confidence and thus prepares the company for virtually any adverse circumstance.

It’s a cliché, but people are stronger for having survived adversity. Done right, a negative news episode can be the platform for building new, stronger public relations that reinforces reputation, brand and organizational values.

— Michael Grimaldi, Senior Communications Consultant

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