Bob Chappell, P/O/N’s Director of Public Relations and Governmental Affairs is a busy man these days with nearly a dozen projects under way from clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small retailers. And no wonder. The importance of Public Relations is underlined by the following story reported in the Wall Street Journal.
Losing the public’s good will can be fatal. Barry Warfel lost his small business because of a public relations blunder. During the Arab oil embargo, sales at his coffee shop in Roseland, N.J., soared as motorists idling in early morning gasoline lines flocked in. He had to add an employee to handle the crush. Then 11–year-old Billy Halliwell showed up outside peddling coffee and snacks from a red wagon.
Billy was an aggressive kid whose sales pitch included insults about Mr. Warfel’s food and prices. Barry Warfel concedes he is hot-tempered. He yelled at Billy and chased him away from the coffee shop entrance. Then the local health inspector, a friend of Mr. Warfel’s, told Billy he couldn’t sell food without a license.
An irresistible national news story was created: enterprising youth thwarted by monopoly-mined businessman and government bureaucrat.
Mr. Warfel was caught in a nightmare of negative publicity. “I was the ogre,” he says. “The mean man against the 11-year-old kind.” People shunned his coffee calls. “I knew I couldn’t stay,” Mr. Warfel says. He sold his shop. Today he manages a fast-food outlet in another town.
On the other hand, Billy became a hero and last year was given an award at the White House Conference on Small Business. Mr. Warfel still can’t understand why he – a man who for years worked with youth groups – couldn’t make the media understand that he wasn’t a kid-hater. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he protests.
Mr. Warfel might have salvaged his image after the initial bad publicity. He could have offered to back Billy’s business, after apologizing for his outburst. He could have given him an award for being so enterprising, suggests Howard J. Rubenstein, founder of a New York City public relations firm. “If you see the tide going against you,” Mr. Rubenstein advises, “correct it. Never be married to a mistake.”
Being aware of how public opinion changes can avert mistakes, says Scott M. Cutlip, dean of the University of Georgia journalism school. “Most blunders come from insensitivity to public opinion,” he says. “You have to realize when something becomes a public issue.” He notes that “for decades industry polluted the environment. But it didn’t become an issue until the publication of “Silent Spring’ ” in 1962.
Tracking public opinion can be as complicated as commissioning special polls, which large companies do, or as simple as reading a diversity of publications. Finding out how people feel about your company needn’t be expensive, Mr. Fulginiti says. Asking customers is the simplest and best way. “The owner should be doing that constantly,” he says.
Complaints can be a source of public relations information – and of course should be handled to create a good impression. Mr. Rubenstein says employees should be told to pay attention to complaints. “If someone takes the trouble to talk about a complaint – no matter how minor – it’s important to take the time to talk with him.”
Mishandling a crisis can be ruinous. The reputation of Firestone tires was immeasurable damaged, Mr. Cutlip says, because the company resisted a recall of radial tires, which the government said were unsafe.
Former newsman Robert Rampton is a Salt Lake City public relations practitioner specializing in crisis news management. He was called in when 23,000 turkeys processed by a Utah company were suspected of having eaten feed tainted with PCBs, suspected carcinogens. In a crisis, he says, “You must be straightforward. You have to be a credible news source. If you aren’t, reporters will find their answers elsewhere.”
Often, lawyers advise against disclosure. Mr. Rampton had authority to speak for the turkey processor without consulting its attorneys. “A lawyer’s instinct,” says the University of Georgia’s Mr. Cutlip “is to deny everything and tell nothing – the opposite of good public relations.”
All of which proves that good Public Relations is not a luxury, but a necessity.