Friday, August 12

Creating Controversy: Sometimes PR Makes Its Own

Public RelationsLike many public relations firms, Kentucky-based Guthrie/Mayes seemed to have sound advice. If your county board of education had suffered a soap operatic firing of a superintendent and less than stellar hiring of a new one, you might consider doing something to manage your public image.

Unfortunately, the public relations firm didn't anticipate that their hiring — at $215 an hour, or up to $20,000 for three months' work — would cause equal friction for the Jefferson County Board of Education, which already staffs communication and public relations professionals with a collective salary of almost $1 million per year, according to WLKY.

So far, the advice — speak with a singular message or not at all — isn't working. WLKY took exception to only one board member answering their call (only to say she wouldn't talk about the issue and hung up). The PIO for the board did try to answer the question. She claimed that the school district communication team has a conflict, working for the board and the district.

The chairman of the board, however, refuted the claim. They work together with the communication department all the time.

This time the public has a point. They needn't fund public relations for elected officials.

The Courier-Journal called it right. Elected board members are obligated to be responsive to the voters and are not entitled to public image makeovers simply to look better for re-election.

What they seem to need is more internal communication among each other, more honesty in the decisions they make, and more appreciation for the people who elect them without fear of "confusing them." At minimum, if they want to have a more unified voice, then they ought to be deferring calls to their chairman unless the issue has individual viewpoints. And if he's not up to the challenge, find someone who is.

In fact, that is what the public relations firm correctly advised. But where the public relations firm was wrong was in advising them to hush up over an issue that area residents seem impassioned about. And considering at least one board member or staff member is leaking the firm's advice to the media, it clearly seems they aren't improving relations as much as they are becoming fodder for controversy.

Some solutions for a fractured board, much more valuable than a muzzle.

Having done considerable work for various public entities as an outside consultant, there are times when overburdened combination staffs need assistance or advice on special projects or in specific situations. However, massaging the messages from the Jefferson County Board of Education doesn't seem to be one of them although the board members might seek independent coaching. As individuals, they obviously know how to undermine their own efforts.

Here's some free advice. Sit down and talk about the issues. When the board decisions are unanimous, let the media know and defer to the chairman. When they are not, meet both obligations by talking to the media about what the board has decided, and why (although in the minority) you felt differently without the rhetoric. Such action might not always result in a quiet and complacent public, but at least you'll be able to sleep at night, knowing that you're being honest.

This is probably the advice the district's communication team could have provided. But given the answer, it seems they could have used that advice themselves. Now, about how much that district ought to be spending on public relations ...
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