Through the PR Looking Glass

Scanning the news lately, I’ve been intrigued by quite a number of PR gambles, ploys, actions and foul-ups. Here’s a look at some of the more important instances, from which I think we can learn something.

President George W. Bush said the buck stops here.

“Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do it’s job right, I take responsibility,” Bush said on Tuesday.

Politics aside, Bush’s comment was some welcome relief for Americans, who have come to expect no one to take responsibility for anything. Of course, we never know if anyone means what they say when the question of accountability arises. This, of course, is the genius of taking responsibility.

“Hey, I’m taking responsibility here, lay the blame on me.”

Thus, with the blame laid, the person who takes responsibility is in control of the situation. He or she can then lay blame on others, spreading it so thin that the person who ultimately has taken responsibility is usually absolved of responsibility. A brilliant PR tactic.

Bush took “responsibility,” but he didn’t apologize. Regardless, many people see taking responsibility as a sign of an apology. To this end, author Richard Conniff says apologies can make a big difference in the business world.

“Apologies are serious business,” Conniff wrote in the latest issue of Forbes. “Corporate managers wouldn’t be spending 42% of their time mediating workplace disputes if their fellow workers understood the natural healing power of the words ‘I’m sorry.’ An apology can also miraculously transform a client’s hostility into honey.”

Conniff pointed to Toro Company, a maker of snowblowers and lawnmowers, as an example of “the power of apology.” Conniff noted that Toro used a standard “deny and defend” policy when it came to consumer accidents involving its products. That changed about fifteen years ago, however, and the company now sends out a company representative to meet with accident victims and their families to express regret and say they’re going to resolve the issue. The payoff?

The company has cut its average settlement payout from more than $115,000 in 1991 to $35,000 last year, and the time it takes to reach a settlement has been cut in half.

“By 1999 an intuitive understanding of the natural history of ‘I’m sorry’ had saved Toro $75 million – and earned the considerable goodwill that comes when do you the right thing,” Conniff concluded.

Samir Suleiman, director of football administration for the St. Louis Rams, is probably regretting a phone call he made recently.

“Tell your source that I’m not a back-stabber, I’m a [expletive] throat slasher, and he’ll know the difference before it’s all said and done,” Suleiman reportedly said on a voicemail message left for St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz.

Suleiman was responding to a column in which Miklasz criticized Rams’ management for not publicly supporting the team’s coach. Rams president John Shaw said the team would reprimand Suleiman, and he added that Suleiman’s phone message showed “a lack of judgment. I really don’t understand it, to be honest with you.”

Talk about putting your foot in your mouth.

Not only did Suleiman generate bad press for himself and his team, but he also got a public slap on the wrist from his boss. And all of this because of a phone message? You bet.

One of the dirty little secrets of the media is that they love a good fight between journalists and just about anyone. I can’t tell you how many times testy emails, voicemails and conservations between myself and executives became the basis for a story. Many times I was saved the embarrassment of running a boring column simply because an angry executive had decided to voice his displeasure with my writing.

As I’ve stated over and over again: As an employee of your company, you’re a PR person, and everything you do with regards to the media should be filtered through a PR light.

Suleiman would have better served his employer, and himself, by speaking with Miklasz directly, and off the record. At the very least, Suleiman should have let his emotions cool down before contacting the writer. His actions have had no positive consequences, and as a result, he’s done nothing but generate bad press.

Toyota created some good PR for one of its main competitors last week.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that General Motors crashed a private party Toyota was throwing in Chicago’s Millennium Park, which was closed for the event. GM sent executives to the park to hand out free passes and tickets to local attractions to tourists who were turned away from the park due to Toyota’s party. The company also sent out chauffeurs, in GM cars of course, to ferry the tourists around.

The Detroit News, Chicago Tribune and the aforementioned Sun-Times covered the story. A few auto industry analysts I spoke to were also aware of the story, and they got a good laugh out of it.

Toyota is crushing GM when it comes to sales growth, but at least GM can chalk up a PR victory. Whoever came up with the idea to crash Toyota’s party deserves some recognition. The event was held on public land (though Toyota rented it), and tourists and locals no doubt enjoyed some free rides and tickets courtesy of the automaker. It’s this kind of creative thinking – combining fun, and a little bit of arrogance and intimidation towards a rival – that can help raise spirits inside a company, and that’s just as important as generating external PR.

Now, if GM could only sell more cars!

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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