Did the Jakarta Post malign the PR profession?

As a PR professional, my heckles were raised when I read the headlines of the latest opinion piece by Jakarta Post editor-in-chief M. Taufiqurrahman.

We’re hearing a lot of ‘sorry’ lately. But without real change, it’s just PR, proclaimed the headline.

Why is he and his paper maligning my profession? Does he not understand that the job of a PR professional is not so much to make enterprises and their leaders to look and sound good, but to guide them to become credible and trustworthy?

My heckles kept getting raised further and further as I read the three examples of responses cited by Taufiqurrahman – Rafael the tax man, Sri Mulyani and officials responding to the Balongan tragedy.

Then I came to the end of the story where he proclaims: “So, unless we see real reforms on the ground following a mea culpa from a public official, their apologies are nothing more than a publicity stunt, and we should treat them as such.”

All of a sudden my heckles were lowered. He did not slag off the PR profession as there headline suggested.

More likely, the copyeditor – the one who put the headlines on the stories – was responsible for mistaking publicity stunts with PR.

The difference publicity stunts and PR is that the former is focussed on making the spokesperson or their organisation look good, no matter what the cost to their reputation.

PR, on the other hand, is focussed on protecting the reputation of the institution by getting the spokesperson to speak and to follow up their words with concrete action in such a manner that would win your trust.

PR is therefore more of a management function where its most valuable contribution is sound advice to spokespersons and institutions arising from their contextual intelligence, on what they should say and do. It uses communication strategies and tactics too help it achieve these objectives.

So in a crisis the initial strategy recommended would be to stick to the Three Rs of crisis communication: Regret, Reason and Remedy.

Regret is about expressing empathy and compassion, especially if incidents have resulted in fatalities, injuries or loss. It is not necessarily an apology or an admission of guilt, that would leave them vulnerable to lawsuits. One can argue that this comprises of only words but spokespersons without empathy find it very difficult to deliver it with authenticity because the micro expressions of the face, the pitch of the voice and the body language are usual giveaways if someone is not being sincere.

In moments of crises people would also want to hear how something like that could come to be. To the best of their ability, spokespersons should explain with as much openness and transparency their understanding of the factors that led to the current situation. When people understand how things developed they are less likely to be suspicious or angry.

But Regret and Reason are not enough during a crisis. The public also expects to hear what Remedy you have in mind.

This is where even experienced spokespersons usually fall flat or they omit this part entirely in their responses, triggering a feeling of great dissatisfaction or anger on the part of their audiences. The thinking here is usually, “fair enough that bad things have happened. You’ve expressed regret and empathy and you’ve told us how this came to be. But what are you going to do about it to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again or that perpetrators would be brought to justice?

Of course, such responses are just words and will be dismissed publicity stunts unless they walk their talk. This is where PR, if it its taken seriously for the management function it is, can play a part.

It will act as the conscience of the institution and continue to advice its C-Suite on measures and actions they need to take in the aftermath of a crisis if they are to maintain or win the trust of their stakeholders.

PR has and can play a valuable role on organisations, especially in today’s environment that is volatile, where information is easily weaponised and where stakeholders have high expectations.

Politicians, leaders, captains of industry and copyeditors would do well to treat PR as a management rather than communications function. Do good PR. Don’t just chase cheap publicity.

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