Public relations professionals are known as advocates for their clients or companies, but when faced with sensitive ethical issues, most of us are uncompromising advocates for truth and honesty.
“Yes men” and “yes women” we are not, and now a study affirms that assertion.
In a study aptly titled “PR Professionals Are Not ‘Yes Men,’” researchers at Baylor University found that senior PR executives would rather get demoted or lose their jobs than give in to pressure to be unethical. True to form, many of the executives interviewed for the study had in fact lost their jobs by not caving in to questionable or dishonest PR strategies.
Baylor researchers found
in 30 in-depth interviews with senior public relations professionals in the United States and Australia, with an average of 27 years of experience, that they often found themselves in the “kill the messenger” predicament. This made it hard to give criticism to people who outranked them and to persuade those people to agree with them.
Speaking up on sensitive ethical issues requires courage, study participants said. A few were fired or demoted for refusing to do something that was blatantly unethical; two resigned when their advice was rejected, including one who refused to include false information in a press release.
One participant noted, “I can’t afford to lose my credibility . . . As PR professionals, it’s all we have.”
Another individual said that the “yes man” has no value whatsoever in PR. Another said one reason for her good relationship with her company CEO is that “he can count on me to not always agree with him.”
Another major barrier was a common misperception among senior executives that public relations is the same as marketing, which limits PR professionals’ roles as problem solvers.
Digging deeper into how being more than a “yes man” works, the study found that having a sound relationship with organizations’ legal counsels is crucial, as well as access to key decision makers. In a crisis, this ensures “fire prevention” instead of “fire fighting.”
Researchers said that participants were resourceful about how to communicate to management without seeming judgmental, using such approaches as mock news conferences and the “headline test,” in which managers were asked to imagine a positive headline and a negative headline that might result from an approach they advocated.
Gil Rudawsky heads up the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.