The PR Fuel Mailbag: Employee Blackmail, Public Relations Disasters, and More Fun

It’s time for another dip into the PR Fuel mailbag. This time we answer some questions from PR Fuel readers, including public relations professionals, who are dealing with some serious issues: a threatening ex-employee, a shaky merger, a recalcitrant journalist, and a strange resume request. All this, plus some public relations web sites to add to your browser’s bookmarks.

Q: We recently fired an employee and he’s now threatening to go the media with dirt on us if we don’t pay him a generous severance package. What should we do?

A: Call your lawyer, then call the police. Your former employee is trying to blackmail you. To avoid this situation in the future, have all employees sign contracts stating that they won’t talk about your business to the media or competitors. The person who sent in this question later sent in an update: the former employee backed down once he got a call from a lawyer who threatened civil and criminal action.

Q: We were all set to announce an important relationship with a much larger company. That company is now dealing with a major public relations problem. Should we go forward with the announcement?

A: I would hold off on the announcement until the dust settles. Even if it’s only temporary, your partner is tarnished and attaching your name to theirs doesn’t do you any good at the moment. This is an unfortunate situation, one where you’re going to have to accept your lack of control. If nothing else, try to use your partner’s current problems for leverage in the future: “You ruined our PR campaign, so you owe us,” etc.

Q: A few months ago, we sent one of our products to a journalist who was interested in reviewing it for his tech column. The product costs about $700 retail. Our standing offer for journalists is that they can either return the product once the review runs or buy it at a wholesale price. Well, the review ran a month ago–it was positive!–and the journalist has not responded to my emails or voicemails regarding the return (or purchase) of the product. What should we do?

A: Journalists love freebies, don’t they? Tell the scribe that if he doesn’t respond  you’ll be forced to speak with his editor. I would also remove him from future mailings and I would not send him additional products. You may lose future reviews, but at least you won’t have to deal with an unethical journalist. I recall having to actually sign an agreement and fax it back to a public relations firm sending me a product to review. Perhaps that’s not the norm, but at least you’ll have a paper trail.

Q: I recently received what I consider a strange request from a reporter at a local newspaper. He wants to list me as a reference on his resume. Is that appropriate?

A: I don’t have a problem with a public relations rep acting as a reference for a journalist, or vice versa. I often acted as a reference for PR people when I was a journalist and I never ran into a problem. Obviously you want to tap someone you trust when picking references, and if someone asks you to serve as a reference, be honest and let him or her know if you feel it’s appropriate. There’s nothing wrong with saying no if it makes you feel uneasy, even if you can’t exactly explain why.

Bookmarks! Here are some public relations web sites you should be checking out on a regular basis.

Consumerist ( If your company or client ends up on Consumerist, chances are it’s not for a good reason. The blog, a product of Gawker Media, helps consumers resolve issues with companies big and small, and it often does so by getting public relations people involved. Insiders dish dirt on customer service practices, and the writers and readers take turns skewering companies. Favorite targets are telecommunications/cable companies and airlines, but there have been pieces on local car dealerships and regional home improvement services providers. Bookmark, read daily, and shudder if your company ends up being written about.

F.A.D.S.–The Fight Against Destructive Spin ( Gini Dietrich, the president of Arment Dietrich Public Relations in Chicago, uses her blog as a platform to dissect egregious spin and the people behind it. The site’s mission statement says it all: “We are a group of PR professionals concerned about the reputation of our industry, committed to raising the level of professionalism in public relations, and putting an end to destructive spin.”

Alan Weinkrantz PR Weblog ( The author runs an eponymous high-tech public relations firm serving clients in North America and Israel. Weinkrantz provides some excellent advice, especially for those seeking insight into how to manage client relationships. A post entitled “An Open Post to Future Prospective Clients,” is worth reading, printing, saving, and stealing ideas from.

PR 2.0 ( Brian Solis of Silicon Valley-based public relations agency FutureWorks looks at the intersection of Web 2.0 and the practice of public relations. “We are spin doctors,” Solis once wrote. “We don’t get it. We can’t write. We like adjectives. We are simply spammers of information and not at all able to speak to influencers (or the people formerly known as the audience) because we’re too dumb to understand what we’re talking about and why it’s important. And we try to always control the message.” Ouch!

Strumpette: A Naked Journal of the PR Business ( Veteran public relations pro Amanda Chapel and friends provide ample attitude to go along with killer insight and some fun industry gossip. Visually, the site has no competitors among public relations bloggers. Considering the length and depth of most pieces, calling Strumpette a blog may be a disservice.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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