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July 9, 2010
Owning Up: The New PR?
Think about this. Is our fixation on the new communication style of social media -- open and honest sharing to create a persona that people want to relate to -- changing the climate for corporate communication and public relations generally? Is that why, undersea oil gusher aside, BP has been so lambasted? And Apple is risking its svelte, user-friendly image in its clumsy handling of the iPhone 4 antenna issue?

Up front, straight out, apologize when due, acknowledge folks have a point, and pledge to make amends. Are these the new themes of public relations, for big and little guys alike? Is owning up what it's about? We hope so. 

These thoughts are prompted not only by reflections on dismaying news streams but  on a tuned-in blog post by Jason Cohen, founder of Smart Bear Software on his A Smart Bear blog.

"The new attitude," Cohen writes, is not, 'Those a------- better not ever screw up,' but rather 'I expect them to try hard, to care, and to treat me well when they inevitably screw up.'"  

In other words, share the burdens of doing business and being human, all the time. 

Be continually mindful of others as listening and caring, is how it might be summed up. Or simply, owning up.

After the accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 31 years ago, the newly recruited post-accident communications staff was charged with relating well with the community. We attended hosts of community meetings; provided honest, timely information on what was occurring in the cleanup of the plant; gave plant tours; answered questions; and acknowledged the public's right to know who we were and what we were doing. When you think about it, that seems a precursor of today's social media ethic. But BP and Apple don't seem to be getting it, at their peril.

Cohen elaborates from his perspective. "This doesn't mean you get a free pass to screw your customers, then earn forgiveness from a heartfelt 'open letter from the CEO.'"

Rather it means:

• "You're doing your honest, level best to do right by your customers, evidenced continuously through all your communication – blog, tech support, website – not just after a crisis.

• "You're learning from your mistakes, evidenced by problems tending towards the esoteric, and by explaining in your apology what steps you've taken to avoid this and similar classes of error.

• "You're doing everything in your power to be the best, evidenced by a culture of awesome employees and inventing new ways to make your customers successful, so mistakes are ordinary human error, not negligence or indifference."

In other words, you're owning up, genuinely so. Maybe social media can accomplish what past disasters couldn't in refining corporate sensibilities toward the public.  

Photo by °Florian via Flickr




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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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