A PR Problem

Paula Deen has a PR problem. At some point Tiger Woods and Martha Stewart have had PR problems. You could even argue that the New England Patriots have a PR problem, what with all their players being arrested for various things. But what is a PR problem, really?

Most people don’t really understand public relations, although they often talk about this seemingly prevalent “PR problem.” I recently attended a luncheon put on by the Public Relations Society of America’s Memphis chapter, and our speaker was Dr. Kevin Trowbridge, who teaches public relations at Belmont University in Nashville. His presentation brought me back to the days of sitting in my college classes. He started with the definition of public relations.

According to PRSA, public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. Anyone who studied the subject in college probably once heard it defined as a management function, but PRSA opted to call it a process instead – noting the importance of having all levels of a business involved for a well-rounded, successful communication strategy.

Back to the PR problem. This term often comes up in a crisis, not unlike the one Paula Deen is dealing with now. As Dr. Trowbridge discussed, Paula’s problem stemmed from two little words in a deposition – “of course” – which she uttered after admitting to using racial slurs at some point in her life. Had she simply said yes or admitted to it but expressed regret immediately, she might still have a show on the Food Network and her name associated with any number of the sponsors who have now dropped her.

But the problem isn’t really PR, is it? In fact, PR is the solution. The problem often arises when someone does or says something that the public finds unacceptable. You could argue that the Florida courts have had lots of these problems with the public pressure put on them during the Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman trials. Celebrities often atone for their problems by checking into rehab. The problem wouldn’t exist, or its effects may be less pronounced, if an organization employs good public relations to start with.

Someone at the PRSA meeting brought up a good question – would Paula Deen’s deposition have resulted in such a backlash if she had already been considered trustworthy? Maybe not. But consider that it wasn’t that long ago that the public discovered she’d been hiding a diabetes diagnosis for several years.

Crises happen. People make mistakes. But it doesn’t have to ruin you. Make sure you have a plan. Make public relations part of your ongoing communications strategy. And don’t make the crisis the first time people hear from you. PR is not a problem. PR is a solution and an ongoing strategy that is always good for business.