Wednesday, December 7

Overreaching With PR: Communicators Aren't Commanders

Bob Conrad touched on a great topic last week, even if some of the devices didn't fit together neatly. Oversimplified, he asks if public relations practitioners are prone to overstep in analysis and their own ability.

The answer is probably, but not all of them. It really depends on the individual practitioner. In using the UC Davis spray analysis for evidence as he did, however, he was absolutely right. Most public relations practitioners failed at an analysis because they did not understand the event.

What many public relations professionals who wrote about the UC Davis crisis did was enter in the aftermath and liberally apply standard crisis communication steps, ticking them off like a scorecard. Some of them even thought it was an Occupy protest. It really wasn't. It was about tuition increases.

Regardless, what public relations professionals who wanted the opportunity to include that now infamous picture on their blogs needed to do is take a different approach to presenting the real problem. To be a real case study of the UC Davis crisis, they would have to frame it properly, like this:

The Real Crisis Communication Case Study Question For UC Davis.

You're sitting in your plush communication office balancing your checkbook against your recent cost of living and merit raise because of the extra time you have, now that you are satisfied with next season's class schedule catalog that has finally been sent to print. (You're especially fond of the photo you picked for page 2). When, suddenly, your phone rings. It's the chancellor. 

"We have a crisis," she screams. "The kids are protesting about our insane tuition increase ... you know, the one that has driven up tuition 250 percent in the last ten years. It's turning into an Occupy protest down there and could turn violent. It's not even safe to walk into the campus, assuming those thugs let you by. They want to shut us down! What should I do? Or more importantly, what will you do?"

A. Walk out and express empathy with the mob in your new designer suit.
B. Recognize that they are only kids and give them treats and call their moms.
C. Flog yourself for not planning ahead and having the police already dressed in riot gear.
D. All of the above.
E. Mention the photo you picked for page 2 and go to lunch.

With the exception of "E," I framed these multiple choice questions based on the analysis that Conrad was right to criticize. The reality of this situation is that no cookie cutter crisis communication steps were going to help a public relations practitioner who needs disaster response experience.

The Reality Of The UC Davis Disaster.

The UC Davis crisis was largely unavoidable. The California university system is struggling to keep up with increasing employment costs that it cannot control and less funding as their budgets are cut. (Some of it could be fiscal mismanagement. Hard to say.) Sooner or later, these students were going to protest ten years of successive and excessive tuition increases. Call is predestination.

Given the atmosphere of Occupy rallies around the United States, it is even more likely that such protests (because there is no solution) will turn violent. It's just the mood of the moment, even among students who can afford a $24,000 to $54,000 per year for education. (Yeah, for UC Davis. Go figure.)

Students have rallies and protests all the time, at least when I went to school. Generally, unless they are disruptive or likely to turn violent, staff can reason with students to disperse as needed. Most of the time, you let them do their thing. (I worked as a resident assistant for two years.) If they do not disperse, you call the police (some schools have campus police; some private). Once the police arrive, it's their call — even if someone is advising them.

Of course, something else has changed since I went to school. Police protocols have been radically changed since 9-11, with most department training significantly more elective and aggressive than it was in years prior. In short, officers assess whether the protestors need to be subdued prior to removal (as opposed to simply picking up and arresting those passively resisting).

Personally, I think the officer in charge overshot. But the real point here is that the call to shoot pepper spray into the faces of those students was not one to be made by public relations. There were no PR advisors there, and the outcome might have been the same even if PR advisors were there.

So contrary to all the assessment write-ups, all public relations pros can do in this kind of a disaster is help mitigate it. Sometimes that means playing out a losing hand. And if you worked in communication for UC Davis on that day, you had a losing hand. What else can be said? No wonder I skipped it.

Do Communicators Make The Best Commanders?

The real question looming in relation to Conrad's post touches on a bigger question, spurred on by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Lately, the society has been attempting to make the case that public relations people make great CEOs.

I mostly agree with Conrad, but for a different reason. A profession, in general, does not indicate whether or not someone would make a great CEO. However, PRSA is presumptive in its answer.

They ask: Who who else besides the CEO or chairman has their finger on the pulse of the company like a public relations person? While it varies from organization to organization, I might say "everyone."

It certainly would on a plane. You see, while a public relations professional might have an understanding of the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight crew, passenger service agents, ground crew, mechanics, and even passengers, I think most of us would think twice before letting him or her fly the plane. Unless, of course, he or she happened to be a great pilot.
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