By Diane Gage Lofgren, APR, Fellow PRSA, Senior Vice President, Brand Strategy, Communications & Public Relations, Kaiser Permanente
Public relations centers on telling an organization or client’s story, backed by truthful information, clear facts, candor and a commitment to building relationships with stakeholders. When trained PR professionals are involved, they think strategically about how to position an organization or client. What they don’t do is "spin". And when others allude to us as "spin doctors," well, I just can’t take it. "Spin" sounds as if we make things up to make things sound better, which degrades our profession. Obfuscating, ignoring facts, or twisting the truth is not what the public relations profession stands for.
What makes PR practitioners proud of their work — and what makes organizational or client reputations strong — is the unwavering core principles our profession adheres to: being forthright, fact-based, authentic, trustworthy, transparent and working to understand the points of view of all involved. These characteristics are what allow others to believe in an organization/client, want to support it and conduct business with it. It’s also what makes them willing to accept an apology or course correction when things don’t go right, and continue to support the product, service, talent or cause.
The ability to consistently display these attributes is a matter of words and deeds. To build a positive reputation — in good and tough times — an organization/client must be who it says it is and do what it says it’s going to do. It must work diligently to develop strong relationships with all stakeholders — from employees and customers to business and community leaders, to government officials and the community it serves.
To do this well, PR professionals use the organization/client’s overarching strategic plan to guide the PR plan and with that foundation tell a compelling story to internal and external constituents. Proactive communications helps the target audiences to gain deeper understanding and appreciation for the organization’s product or service, as well as its position on a wide variety of topics. Stating its point of view and explaining the reasons behind its actions allows others to get to know the organization/client. They become familiar with what it stands for and is committed to, as well as how the organization/client contributes to its customers and supporters, who are ultimately responsible for its success.
Issues and Crisis Management
It’s critical to have a trusted team trained to anticipate issues before they occur, and mitigate and address them immediately when they do. When a problem arises, these PR leaders must work quickly with operational leaders to understand all aspects of the issue, surface the truth and identify opportunities for change and improvement. They must then speak on behalf of the organization or train the appropriate spokesperson (often those closest to the issue) to respond to the media and constituents.
It’s often at these times, when the chips are down and the stakes are high, that details can easily get out of control. Reporters, bloggers, citizen journalists and frustrated or uninformed constituents can begin to define the organization/client if PR and operational leaders are not acutely aware of what they say and how they say it. This is exactly when many organizations falter, go into reactive vs. proactive mode, and can be perceived as "spinning." To stay in control when things do go wrong, it’s important to:
- Tell the truth quickly. This doesn’t mean instantly explaining every detail. The point is to respond with what you know and what you can discuss, and not to hide or mislead. Sometimes the response has to be that you are gathering the facts and will get the information out as soon as you know it.
- Apologize if something has gone wrong and do so in an authentic way. Carefully choose a spokesperson who has intimate knowledge of the situation and can speak with credibility, depth and understanding. He/she must be someone others will believe.
- Show the heart and soul of your organization by making things right when something has gone wrong. Demonstrate compassion — even if what happened wasn’t your organization’s fault, you can still demonstrate sympathy without accepting liability.
- Work with operations to immediately correct or begin correcting anything that needs to be corrected so the same issue does not reoccur.
- Make your "full" response available on your news center or website so all constituents can gain more complete understanding than what appears in the media or in other digital sources.
- Communicate to employees so they are not caught off-guard when asked by customers, community members or friends/family about the situation.
Building Relationships with Internal Stakeholders/Leaders
Everybody likes to put his or her best face forward. But it’s our job to do it in a way that the public will trust us. This means being true to your word and true to what you say about the situation and your organization/client.
As PR counselors to our leaders/clients, it’s our job to help them see, in the midst of all they’re doing, what they need to do to protect their positive reputation, yet without compromising trust. We bring the voice of our stakeholders to leaders. Through our sensitivities and research, we allow them to understand what others are thinking, feeling and saying. This feedback helps to guide decisions in the midst of an issue or crisis.
Many problems can be avoided if the PR team lays the groundwork with leaders early on. As in any emergency, we respond better if we have a plan and are well prepared. It pays huge dividends if we can meet regularly with others in the organization or our client to build trusting relationships when there is not the pressure of a crisis. This is a time for thoughtful thinking about what could go wrong and how to mitigate issues before they go public. It’s also essential to hold emergency preparedness drills so everyone knows their role if a crisis does occurs.
When an issue goes public, it’s crucial for the PR leaders to work as partners with operational leaders — to understand the details and nuances of a situation as well as the various points of view. When we take time to listen and avoid jumping to conclusions, we can cooperatively come to a solution and work hard to ensure that all audiences have the information they need that will lead to understanding and resolution, and ultimately serve their needs.
Monitoring the Conversation
One way to avoid minor irritations from becoming major issues is by monitoring what’s being said about our organization/client in traditional, online and social media. By doing so, we can respond quickly and truthfully. This includes evaluating the tone of online comments and determining if our interaction or the interaction of key stakeholders is necessary. It also means being aware when someone expresses a concern on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platform and responding as quickly as possible. When the issue is service related, training customer service representatives on how to respond online can help answer questions and handle complaints in a timely and efficient manner. (See Kaiser Permanente’s Twitter handle @kpmemberservice).
Many responses to tweets and posts require providing answers to simple questions or information that will calm frustration. When a concern is more serious, it’s usually important and most constructive to take the conversation offline, via direct-message, email or phone, to conduct a one-on-one conversation. The goal is to determine the source of the problem and a way to resolve it quickly and satisfactorily, like any other issue brought to the organization/client’s attention.
Focus on the Positive
While we know issues and crises are inevitable, it’s important for the public relations team to work diligently to tell the positive stories that exemplify the essence of the brand. Again, no "spin" accepted. This is a time to put our best foot forward with a unique angle and to do so in a way that is supported by irrefutable facts and information. The more our stakeholders know about our accomplishments and positive points of differentiation, the more brand equity we build with them — something that will help support us when things aren’t going as planned.
Identifying and cultivating the subject matter experts in areas in which your organization/client excels is critical. Regularly interacting with these experts helps PR practitioners to gain understanding at a deep level and makes it easier for them to surface story opportunities and communicate about them in a meaningful
The Kaiser Permanente PR team learned of one of our members who, on his 90th birthday, had the distinction of becoming the longest-living person with type 1 diabetes. In our conversations with his family and care team, we were able to identify and leverage our clinicians and the care we continue to provide to him. When we spoke with a reporter at the Associated Press, we articulated his story and the constant care he receives from his doctor. This was also an opportunity for us to educate the reporter on our overall care of diabetics and really position the doctor as a leader. The story highlighted the member’s accomplishment and his personal will to live a long and healthy life, and also articulated compassion and care by his clinician.
Follow a Code of Ethics
Public relations is a profession guided by ethics. Professional societies like PRSA, Arthur Page Society and IABC have their own codes of ethics or principles that serve as guidelines and guardrails for how PR professionals are expected to carry out their responsibilities. Holding ourselves to these high standards means we act and respond in a way that protects our profession just as we would our organization or client’s brand. That means there is no room for anything that resembles "spin".
With the tremendous access to information that the Internet and social media afford, an organization/client is often no longer the only official source of information. Communicating with integrity will help us stay true to our brand and best serve all our stakeholders. When it comes to our reputation, character counts.