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January 24, 2007
The Lies of PR: Is That Your Final Answer?

How did lying become so fashionable — again?!

Lately it appears everyone has foregone lessons of our recent forefathers (Mr. WorldCom, Mr. Rigas, and MS Living) and straight back to “what can I get away with” time.

We’ve entered a period where it’s too easy to get caught now since our faithful media consists of citizen journalists who will do absolutely anything for a scoop — like lose sleep and not get paid. The trip down is way too low these days.

The past few years have exposed corporate greed and disdain for the consumer at its finest, Enron being the poster child. Weren’t we shocked, despite our common opinion of corporate giants being anything but flattering? Ah, remember how particularly outlandishly those few individuals behaved? The late Ken Lay was the face of a sinister corporate evildoing. Faces like ours, with a nose and eyes, but at the same time something alien. People knowingly took advantage of regular folks in ways even ‘80s players like Michael Milken could not fathom.

Afterwards, people like me who write, research, teach, and practice PR were waiting for a new age of ethics. Nothing spawned, nothing earned — right?

Well, not exactly. In 2006 there was more out-and-out fibbing by giant players than thought possible: Edelman’s blogging for Wal-Mart BS, Sony’s bizarrely slow battery recall and $4.25 million paid-out for illegal anti-copying software, Bausch & Lomb’s faulty solutions, and Taco Bell’s mishandling of many vegetables.

Denials were the stylish look until corporations got smacked in the head by facts.

It is as if the go-to-jail years were shades of Bobby Ewing stepping out of a fantasy shower (reference “Dallas”)!

Lying is that thing mom warned us not to do. Look, I’m hardly a saint — I’ve had a BlackBerry pager for going on 10 years and always claim to be somewhere I’m not.

But if you service people for a living, all you have are good looks and your word. Why ruin either; why even exaggerate? It makes a journalist who reports the lie look like a dolt, so therefore your problems get louder and more public. Not to mention the ethical problems.

I get muttering something you quickly regret. Politicians buy back what they say every day. If it happens, if you or someone in your company lies, call back, apologize, make amends. Say some unruly devil made you do it. But don’t stand by your insolence.

Bausch & Lomb’s spokespeople imagined aloud that bouts of illness from their brand of contact lens solution was not entirely their fault when it was. I found that odd; beleaguered pharmaceutical companies usually do okay with stopping bad situations from worsening. They know delay will merely exacerbate the situation. “If you don’t know what to say or how much to say,” I’ve told pharma clients at my firm, “you end up making people mad by not saying anything — or making things up.”

As for citizen bloggers and podcasters and email trend shouters, if you act aggressively under full disclosure, you will rebound without folks thinking, “I caught them.” Use all open channels to talk about what happened, analyze what went wrong, demonstrate how quickly you jumped!

Want proof that honesty wins the battle? Try Phillip Morris, which has gone above and beyond a government settlement in shouting mea culpa. A firm not known to be open has been quite grassroots with its forthrightness. The company devoted resources and spoke out on TV and radio, in blogs, chat rooms, and consumer and/or investor sites. They even dived into the shallow end of the pool with AOL and MSN.

Hollywood has taught us poorly. But it’s one thing for Miss Kidman to pretend to be wed to Mr. Urban or Mr. Aiken to pretend to be a hot-blooded girl-chaser. These are performers paid to beguile us and sell something that is pure fantasy! Entirely different for a firm to bemoan a problem via big media with statements they and we know is pure nonsense.

What I’ve learned from the post-dot-com workaday is smack in the middle of my book, Punk Marketing: Get off your ass and join the revolution, due in February from no-stranger-to-scandal HarperCollins. Here, my Punk coauthor and I unveil a convenient truth:

Knowing that what you do passes the bullshit test and is meaningful, honest and interesting, plus has some measure of heart, is all it takes to make it in the world of sales, marketing, PR, and all fields of “service.” If your work doesn’t fit the above, please find something else to do.

It’s a fact: informed people want to be told what’s up. So have a heart, pull the Band-Aid brand bandage off, and dole those facts out. We’d rather laugh at Katie Couric than you anyway!

It may seem obvious (it’s not) but you can “get away with” telling the truth by jumping up with outside data from a third-party source — government, surveyors or testers — who you give to press before they start to wonder and thereby emphasize (emphasis mine) the safety of your product or pinpoint whatever problems exist. External data is all on somebody else’s reputation, so it’s seen as cool.

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Richard Laermer is CEO of New York's RLM pr, representing, among others, e-Miles, Epic Advertising, Yodlee, Revolution Money, Group Commerce, Smith & Nephew, and HotChalk. He was host of TLC's cult program Taking Care of Business and speaks on trends and marketing for corporate groups. You can read Laermer on The Huffington Post and on the mischievous but all-too-necessary Bad Pitch Blog. For more like this, follow him on @laermer.

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