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Opinions of Thursday, 24 June 2021

Columnist: King Adawu Wellington

Major PR blunders committed by companies

Over the years I have watched with a pinch of salt bad management practices and decisions made by managers in both private and public sectors in Ghana with regards to their public relations efforts. The surprising thing is the fact that some of these managers are renowned experts and should know better but I guess we all engage in wrong choices from time to time. However once a trend is established it becomes worrying and needs to be addressed hence the purpose for this article. In this article, public relations, corporate affairs and communications are used interchangeably because of the diverse use of these terms in various organizations.

It would interest you to know that the major cause of crisis in most organizations is management decisions. Although COVID-19 has reshaped this thought pattern and made companies realise that uncertainties, vulnerabilities and complexity of their macro business environment presents the greatest threats as well as opportunities to them, bad management decisions still stand tall among the list of causes of crisis. Most decisions that are made in organizations fail because of various reasons which I may probably address in another article since this very one is not meant to discuss strategic management or leadership.

For over a decade, I’ve noticed some blunders committed by organizations when it comes to decisions regarding their public relations. These decisions mostly lead to lack of continuity, loss of institutional memory, inefficient public relations activities, financial loss and damaged reputation. In this article, top blunders committed by top management executives in most organizations are listed. These are my top 10 blunders that I noticed exist in both the private and public sectors. I must admit that there are organizations that are doing tremendously well with their communications and when you look deeper you will realise they don’t commit these blunders and even if they do from time to time, it is minimal. Let’s dive into it shall we!

1. Conducting Public Relations as business as usual.

I’ve witnessed organizations in Ghana, some top level and well respected conduct their communications activities haphazardly. By this, I mean they are not strategic with their public relations. You see, public relations create positive impact for organizations when it is strategic, structured and not done based on a knee jerking principle. Knee jerk communications leads to inconsistency, ineffectiveness and PR disaster. Being strategic has several meaning, but for this article, it means analysing business environments of your company, evaluating your company’s resources and capabilities, critical thinking, effective planning, efficient allocation and use of resources, prudent implementation, managing change, creative thinking, effective monitoring, evaluation and reporting. All these and more put together can be used to create a strategic document often called the communications strategy. This strategic document guides an organization to be coordinated, consistent and creative when it comes to public relations, thus, you would be able to ascertain why your organization needs to communicate, whom to communicate with, how to communicate, what to communicate, where to communicate and which tools you must use for your communications.

2. The notion that corporate communications is only about the media.

Don’t get me wrong, the media is still a relevant and essential stakeholder for organizations and their public relations activities. However, technological advancement, dynamic behaviour of stakeholders, advancement in research, development of new business models, concerns for the environment, and others have caused creation and rise of new functions such as sustainability, branding and reputation management and the general concept of responsible business. This phenomenon made companies to realise years ago that beyond the media, are relevant stakeholders that must be made part of public relations efforts. For instance, considering the interest and influence of employees in today’s business environment makes them critical stakeholders that cannot be ignored. Imagine being a non-technical staff of a power utility company and you don’t have any idea of why your community is experiencing power outages because internal communication is non-existent within your organization due to the use of media as the sole content dissemination channel. So if you are still heavily focused on the media and ignoring other public relations functions, then you’re definitely making a mistake. Think of how the Midland Savings and Loan crisis would’ve been different if outsourced contractors – in this case the bank’s security personnel – were engaged internally and taught about the company’s ethos, values and way of doing things.

3. Making untrained and inexperienced people head the Public Relations department.

This particular blunder is in various forms. The first dimension is the ideology among decision makers that a journalist with no PR training or experience can step-up overnight to lead a PR team. The second dimension is the growing trend in Ghana that people that regularly speak on radio, TV or even moderate events are automatic public relations professionals. I’ve witnessed such decisions made countless times and very often lead to failure. The truth is this, being a journalist and handling media relations are very different. The latter involves managing relationships, strategic thinking, stakeholder analysis, reputation management, creativity, innovation among others. From experience, most journalists that transit into PR without going through proper training and gaining experience, narrow the PR efforts of their organizations to only traditional media channels which limits the impact that can be chalked when a more strategic approach is adopted. With regards to spokespersons becoming PR heads, this is mostly in the public sector where political party communicators are rewarded with such positions. Those that often succeed are the people that build their capacity as soon as they assume office and seek mentorship from experienced PR professionals. Loudmouths are mostly given the room to lead PR teams but the truth is the loudest talker in the room is not necessarily the most intelligent or the strongest in communication. PR just like any other department in an organization should have well-structured system of working to ensure high productivity.

4. CEO’s and heads of institutions mind-set that they know better than their Public Relations professionals.

This is a serious issue that most PR professionals face at some point in their career. I must confess that it saddens me when I come across such cases. Some PR professionals only receive and executive instructions ‘from above’. But the truth is, it is supposed to be the other way round. In fact just as other functional heads are allowed to make decisions and advise the company based on their knowledge and experience, PR professionals must be allowed to do same. However in most Ghanaian institutions, PR professionals are rather told what to do. I’ve heard remarks such as “call the PR people to come and take picture”, “we’ve already contacted a journalist to cover the event so work with him/her”, “let them take down the story”, “a journalist is here to conduct interview with Chief/CEO, call PR” and I often ask these CEO’s why don’t they allow their PR professionals to do their work. Every communications activities must emanate from the organization’s PR office based on an approved annual plan.

5. Under funding the Public Relations activities

Budgets for most PR activities are inadequate and this shows the level of priority given to Public Relations. After interacting with decisions makers in the past, keys words that dominated those conversations include the fact that their PR professionals are unable to properly report the actual impact of funds spent on PR activities. It is important to note that understanding and clearly reporting how your PR activities contribute to the company’s bottom-line can empower you to request for more resources. This can be achieved when PR professionals have business knowledge and are able to speak the language of top executives. By this I mean, having basic level of financial knowledge and being able to understand income statement, balance sheet, statement of cash flows.

6. Bad organizational structure

Yes this is part of my list! I’ve seen organograms where the PR department stand alone and reports to the CEO or Chief Director and Minister. Large organizations have corporate affairs directors while some have Vice President’s or Regional Managers that are in charge of Communications and so on. For others, PR is under the research department, some PR Units are put under the human resource management department, other are under legal departments among others. Speaking with these organizations, they all seem to have justifiable reasons although some organograms needs restructuring. It is understandable that structuring an organization depends on a lot of factors including size, market or sector, legal framework adopted, corporate strategy and others; however it is important to note that the corporate affairs department must have direct access to the top boss because of the nature of the work.

7. Lack of capacity building for the Public Relations team

What was topical yesterday may not necessarily be relevant today. Trends change, consumer behaviour change, technology is advancing, new theories and concepts are being developed hence there is the need for organizations to build capacity of their PR employees because it helps the business. Knowledge is power and one mistake organizations do is not training their employees. I also urge employees to make it a point to build their knowledge if their employer isn’t doing what is required. This is because being knowledgeable makes you confident, relevant and have the skills to execute your role exceptionally.

8. Expecting results overnight

Consistency is vital when building a brand. Being deliberate about it helps the overall PR efforts. Most organizations are impatient and pressure their PR teams for instant results and this leads to frequent changing of strategies. When this happens, the PR team becomes inconsistent and stakeholders get confuse at some point.

9. Turning the Public Relations department into a propaganda machine

The fundamental rule to effective reputation management is ‘doing the right thing’. As stated above, bad management decisions is the major cause of crisis for organizations. Most often top managers make wrong management choices and expert their PR team to do ‘damage control’. This is a reactive approach to public relations. Pro-activeness is the best way hence efforts must be made by the organization to allow the PR team function proactively.

10. Office Politics

Whether directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously some managers cause frictions among employees. These take various forms but the dominant one is siding with people to fight other colleagues. I’ve witnessed situations where people with less experience and qualifications are made to lead the PR Unit whereas there are other people more deserving, all because of office politics. Also, there is a linkage between ‘sexual harassment’, ‘corporate prostitution’ and office politics and this affects the organization negatively because it causes divisions and makes the PR Unit not to function properly. This very issue is however not limited to the PR office alone, it is a general organizational problem. There is a recent case in a reputable organization where there are two PR Units - one Unit works for the Head of the organization alone and another Unit works for the organization itself, and they are both housed in one building. The PR Unit that serves the organization has another challenge of being put under a Department that has no business with PR and headed by someone with zero idea of how Public Relations is conducted. I know it’s difficult to ponder but that is the reality of things happening.

11. Limited Data and Metric-Savvy Driven Activities

The world is advancing and data is relevant in today’s world. I can confidently say that most PR functions in organizations have limited experience in using data to make decisions. It is important to collect data using specific metrics throughout a campaign lifecycle and analyse them to make an informed decision. Metrics to consider include brand impact and value, media coverage and reach, share of voice, engagement and conversion, sentiment analysis and return-on-investment. You can also use the PESO (paid, earned, shared, and owned media) model as a framework to measure your PR activities. It is also advisable to have a metric dashboard to track your activities for each year.

In conclusion, these blunders are affecting the Public Relations practice and needs urgent attention. Professional Public Relations bodies and associations must step up their game and help organizations get it right. Public Relations professionals must also build their skills and confidence in order to succeed at the workplace.

Do you have your own list of PR blunders? Share them using the harsh tag #PRblunders on social media to keep the conversation going. Remember to always stay informed!

About the writer:

King Adawu Wellington is a business strategist with expertise in executing projects and helping companies achieve their goals in diverse industries. King has a proven track record of solving problems using innovation as well as possesses excellent knowledge and experience of managing organizational change and building capacity of companies in over 24 countries across Africa, Latin America, Europe, North America and Asia. King holds an MBA International Business, MSc Energy & Sustainable Management and MSc Computing from University of Birmingham UK, KNUST Ghana and Robert Gordon University UK respectively.