When confronted with a public relations problem, the question is always, is this a singular event or does it indicate a more systemic issue in the company? While working in-house, I would often have senior managers slip into my office to say, “Leah, we have a PR problem.” The first thing I had to consider was not only the issue at hand, but if there was an underlying problem and, if there was, how could we fix it. Along the way, we would also figure out how to talk about it.
Large businesses are often bound by habit, systems and processes. When a problem arises that could affect a company’s reputation, in addition to considering the different tactics that might be employed to avoid the hit to reputation, it’s vital, I think, to look at the underlying causes. I ask myself, what is the broader environment in which the business is operating that affects this situation? I want to understand the habits, systems and processes – the internal culture — that led to the “PR problem.”
Very often, this sort of inquiry takes time, and the minute-to-minute news cycle is unforgiving. Last summer, The New York Times posted a scathing article about Amazon’s work culture, filled with tales of obscene hours, a cutthroat environment and a manager who labeled motherhood as a “liability.” The following week, an internal email conveyed hopes that the Amazon portrayed in the article was not the same company most employees recognized. The real PR battle happened two months later, when Amazon responded publicly by denouncing the Times’s article and the paper’s sources. Although the response came much too late, it still led to a public clash between the two giant institutions, with opposing interpretations of Amazon’s work environment.
But at the same time, Amazon was making internal changes. Amazon said it had extended its paid maternity and paternity leave policies. It’s unclear if this was inspired by the Times’s piece, but it is clear that at some point Amazon recognized that it needed to reassess some of its policies to better suit the needs of its employees. The Amazon case is an example of the intertwining nature of PR, business assessment and change that make up the body of a challenge that might initially have been misperceived as simply a “PR problem.”
Corporate cultures react to criticism differently, but internal questioning can lead both to happier employees and a more productive business. When a PR problem warrants both a standby statement and an internal discussion, the entire business can benefit.
Internal questioning requires trust. The communications team not only has a view of the inner workings of a company, but it is also plugged into all external audiences. As a result, the team is uniquely positioned to take a holistic view and partner with all elements of the business to problem solve. When handled correctly, “PR problems” can turn into opportunities to improve a business.