I am always on the prowl to get my feet wet (perhaps the correct term is dive in) when it comes to meeting other PR professionals. I believe every opportunity is a potential learning experience, when I was invited to attend a local PRSA Chicago meeting last week, I couldn’t resist.
The conference began with three distinguished guest speakers, all selected because of their strong PR background and expertise. The big topic everyone kept coming back to? You guessed it- British Petroleum. Lately, it’s been difficult to avoid coverage of the company since nearly every media outlet has run some sort of story on them. I’m sure you’ve seen how many of the major television news outlets run video of the oil gushing out two miles below the ocean! Interestingly enough, the public relations professionals at the event were all asking themselves the same question: What was BP thinking?
Our job as public relations professionals is to be both the strategist and the builder– we‘re supposed to make sure our messages are clearly communicated to our clients’ target audiences, while helping to manage their reputation through crises. In addition we protect them from controversy and negative media coverage, and ensure that they are entirely transparent with both the public and the media. British Petroleum unfortunately failed to disclose enough information and broke one of the most important rules in public relations: don’t lose the media’s trust. Unfortunately for BP, this error will likely keep the company on the defensive for the foreseeable future.
Several guest panelists at the PRSA event noted that they couldn’t understand the decisions made by the PR team at BP, especially when they allowed their CEO to go on a “yacht racing” trip. However, one panelist made an excellent point: it’s easy to criticize another company when you’re not involved in the situation. The key is to realize that being on the outside means that we don’t always know all of the variables.
Ultimately, we have to find that fine line between meeting the media’s needs, while simultaneously promoting our client’s messages. As I left the luncheon with a stomach full of ravioli and tiramisu, I came away with a deep respect for the work done by public relations professionals, and a new understanding of crisis communications.