Public relations firms are no stranger to government. In fact, many would argue that politics and politicians helped drive the success and popularity of PR today. Public relations firms have worked with presidents, governors, mayors, and even entire departments. But now some forward-thinking PR firms take on cities as clients.
City of Beloit hires Serafin
After the controversy stirred up by complaints against the Beloit Police Department, the City of Beloit acted swiftly to obtain PR counsel. This followed an investigation into the department showing everything from missing drugs to firearms the department could not account for.
City Manager Lori Curtis Luther then made plans to improve communications within the police department, and with outside media networks. To add to this workload, the city received as much as 25 calls each day from the media. Representatives from local and national networks were hoping for updates and headline-worthy news. With a city to run, Curtis Luther turned to Serafin & Associates to handle the media so she could focus on her work.
Cost & Benefits to the City
Hiring a PR firm cost the city roughly $6000 each month Serafin worked with them. The firm handled calls from the media and provided leadership training. They also worked with the police and fire departments to provide a special training program tailored to their needs and the demands of their job. According to Curtis Luther, the city paid for this expense by mostly using money set aside to pay for vacant positions.
Ending the Contract
Since these positions are no longer vacant, and the controversy is mostly handled, she’s ending the contract with Serafin in February. Curtis Luther insists this in no way reflects on the quality of work provided by the firm. She reminded the media the city has a tight budget to work with, and now the crisis has died down, internal staff can handle the regular PR-related demands as before.
Sign of the Times
As PR continues to work its way into every facet of business and organizational dealings, we can expect more instances of government bodies and officials working with PR firms on crisis management issues. It’s also a fair guess that many more government officials will take on PR firms full-time, instead of on an as-needed basis. This may affect budgets and tax dollars, but will help officials to do the work we hire them to do.
Even so, PR has gained a mostly bad rep in politics for a number of reasons. These include spinning comments, delaying information, and protecting public figures from scrutiny for their actions. This reputation may work against government organizations hoping to spend tax dollars on hiring PR firms.
For instance, when Governor Rick Snyder hired not one but two public relations firms to help him make it through the Flint water crisis, many questioned why he spent taxpayers’ hard-earned money on PR campaigns while people grew ill and died from the water crisis. The accusations were so strong that Bill Nowling, a senior partner at one of the firms – Mercury PR – asserted the Governor paid him via a private fund.
As more politicians hire PR firms to handle reputation and crisis management, one thing remains certain. The practice continues to grow and is well on its way to becoming a norm of operating in the public sphere.
Rebuilding Organizational Trust
As organizations get caught up in one scandal after the next, customers and the public at large lose trust in these entities every day. This shows poor ethics at the corporate level. But, even the most well-meaning organizations and figures can find themselves in the midst of scandal.
One example of this comes from Chipotle’s recent E.coli outbreak. The restaurant chain spent the past decade and a half branding itself as a provider of Food With Integrity. Chipotle focused on using safe and organic ingredients and stuck to its promise – until the E.coli scandal broke. This caused distrust among customers and suddenly made Chipotle the risky and unsafe alternative.
Since these situations can happen to anyone, public icons should keep a plan in place to handle the crisis and resolve the issue. But more importantly, they should have a plan in place to rebuild organizational trust.
Hire a PR Firm
Organizations should not wait until they are drawn too far into a scandal to take a public relations firm on board, as this only fuels greater distrust. Most PR firms provide services to assist with reputation management and crisis management, so calling on the experts who specialize in this area just in time is key.
These public relations firms often handle the media and spin the news in your favor, as well as train executives. Such was the case when Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther hired PR firm, Serafin & Associates, to assist with cleaning up a mess caused by pending complaints against the Benoit Police Department. The training improved internal communications and helped the department identify spokespersons for future crises.
Many companies make the mistake of thinking of employees as liabilities, rather than assets. This belief often translates into treating workers like obstacles to bigger profits, rather than partners in success. As a result, when crisis hits companies overlook employees and try to settle things with the public first.
Smart companies keep in mind one simple fact: these employees and their families are part of the public too. Managers should work with employees first to rebuild trust in the brand. This is important because this brand now affects the employee. Employee support can make all the difference in the world as they spread good publicity about the company in social gatherings and on social media.
Now that the employees are on board keep them abreast of new updates and developments regarding the issue. Don’t let them find out through the media what their company is doing to rectify the situation. Once employees have been alerted, work to keep the public updated as well. Chipotle did this via a web page completely dedicated to this purpose. Many companies may redirect this responsibility to a PR firm, or to the CEO.
Maintaining transparency reminds people the company is working on the issue, and will resolve it soon. It also presents the opportunity for good publicity. Media representatives will be hungry for updates, and everyone will want to write about the steps the company is taking. This makes for much better headlines than emboldened text just highlighting the company’s failures and mistakes.
Act on the Best Resolution
After the investigation is done and the updates given, the company must act to resolve the issue. For instance, when Governor Snyder’s decision to switch water supply caused Flint residents to become sick, he acted by requesting help from the government and declaring a state of emergency.
For most companies and organizations, this may mean firing the person who brought scandal on the company. Taco Bell took this route when one of its Marketing managers was caught on film violently attacking an Uber driver. This decision to sever ties with the executive saved its reputation. The decision proved to be an especially wise one as the former-executive embarrassingly went on to sue the Uber driver for $5 million dollars in ‘damages’.
As no company can fully safeguard itself from scandal, it should always have a plan put in place. Keeping a PR firm at the ready also helps to minimize damage. In place of these things. Remember employees come first, remain transparent, and resolve with actions, not words.