My first mentor in the PR business always used to say to me, “Hud, the only way PR works is when the words match the actions.” That counsel has proven germane countless times. But using its logic as a measure of current practice, you have to admit that from the NFL right on down the line (or up the Hill) to the White House, misalignments have led to a disastrous month for PR.
Let’s start with NFL wunderkind Tom Brady. He playfully urges New England Patriots fans planning to attend the team’s home opener to “… start drinking early … get nice and rowdy … get lubed up, come out here and cheer for (the) home team.” Within the hour, the team’s PR department issues a clarification. “What Tom meant to say was ‘stay hydrated, drink a lot of water, be loud, drink responsibly.’”
ESPN gabber Scott Van Pelt spoke for me when he said, “They’re lying and besides, isn’t beer one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors?”
Next, the CEO of Solyndra, recipient of a $585 million “green” loan from taxpayers, asserts on July 13 that his company’s revenue would double in 2011. Yet the letter to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in which his assertion is made has nary a hint of the financial perils that would force the company into bankruptcy just six weeks later.
I don’t usually agree with Henry Waxman, but this time we are on the same page: the assertion and the reality “starkly contrast,” an uttering that may actually qualify for understatement of the year.
Then comes George Will’s WaPo column last week where he sticks it to political wordsmiths for their impoverished vocabulary. Thinking new words are potions for persuasion, “liberals” have become “progressives,” “stimulus” now goes by “investment,” and an intrusive “federal government” is suddenly the “federal family.”
Ouch. As a PR person, albeit a corporate one, this “needle” digs deep because it challenges two core tenets of our professional belief system. The first is the aforementioned word-action alignment rule. The second is never – and I mean never – try to outsmart the public. You’ll get discovered every time. Just ask Richard Nixon, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, or Tiger Woods.
What really hurts is the name this gives PR and PR people. With such frequent high profile misspeak, people naturally assume we are in the business of making stuff up, spinning yarns, and generally trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.
Which leads me directly to the White House … and a few would-be occupants, too. Ever since the President’s job approval ratings headed south, supporters have been chanting that the Administration has a messaging problem. It’s as though the political types believe that one of the Davids (Axelrod or Plouffe) can actually pen the words that will suspend the public’s disbelief.
Sorry. It just doesn’t work that way. Even for politicians, the “do” and the “say” have to be in synch. This is why I think no matter which way you lean on the political spectrum, your PR sensibilities have to be challenged by the remarkable penchant for politicians to say one thing and seem to be doing another.
For example, you can’t promise “no new taxes” for the middle class and then impose penalties for not buying government health insurance, stick the states with a bigger share of Medicaid (code for more state taxes), refuse to approve oil drilling leases (code for higher gas prices), cut off voucher systems for public education, and spend a trillion in “shovel ready” projects with no mention of who’s paying.
You can’t say the health care reform act ought to be repealed and then, in the case of one leading Presidential contender, defend the cost containment aspects of a similar plan that you helped enact while you were governor – a plan, by the way, that appears to be driving costs skyward at a record pace. The numbers don’t add up … and neither do the words.
You can’t say you are pro-Israel and then join in on European and UN condemnations of the Jewish state, attend ceremonies honoring alleged terrorists (Dalal Mughrabi, leader of the Coastal Red Massacre), and deliver an Arab Spring speech.
You can’t launch a tirade against “potentially dangerous” HPV from a Presidential debate platform and then, in the face of insurmountable medical and scientific evidence to the contrary, defend the original claim with assertions of even greater harm, also unsupported. Fact is, being loud and scary is not synonymous with telling the truth.
You can’t issue calls for civility in the political dialogue and then brandish the opposition as “fat cats,” Tea Party “terrorists,” “hostage takers” and elderly cliff-tossers. And you probably shouldn’t expect anyone to follow your lead when you urge supporters to “punish our enemies” or snitch at AttackWatch.com.
Finally, with the whole country feeling the pain of recession, you can’t say you empathize with the unemployed or socio-economically challenged from the balcony of a $50,000-a-week vacation villa … or that you are gravely concerned about the nation’s debt ceiling as you head off – at taxpayer expense – to a $35,000-a-plate birthday party.
So, back to the original question. Is the White House giving PR a bad name? To ask the question is to answer it, I suppose. To be sure, many other administrations have preceded the current regime with similar penchants for poorly aligned word play. And there have been plenty of high profile companies and celebrities afflicted by the same crooked logic.
So, it is no wonder that most people have a fairly low opinion of the profession. To hear the media tell it, PR is a distraction, a disaster, a challenge, a war, hype, just PR, schmooze … or worse. It’s painful.
My wish for the future, then, would be some new role models for PR. I want friends and associates to look at Disney or Coke or Apple as the examples of what we do. That way, years from now, it might actually be understood that the mission of PR is to help companies behave in ways that gain and retain the public’s permission to operate … and that my life’s work was spent helping them line up the “say” with the “do.”