Blurring the Line Between Public Relations and Customer Service

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My friends think I’m strange when I tell them that the best way to solve a problem is to call someone who works in public relations. As a consumer, I’ve learned that PR people usually take their company’s customer service seriously. When traditional dispute resolution fails, a call or email to a PR person can work wonders. In recent weeks, as a consumer, I’ve had three experiences with PR people that I wanted to note; these examples should illustrated why all PR people need to be ready to act as a customer service rep in their company’s interest.

In each of these cases I was just your average consumer. I never hinted that I knew anything about public relations. I just wanted information that I wasn’t getting through traditional channels, and I went to PR people to get this information. Nevertheless, because I’m acting here as a journalist, I won’t disclose the companies’ names.

Company A

I recently began experiencing problems with a product I ordered from Company A less than a year ago. The customer service department’s contact information was not listed on Company A’s web site. A phone number dumped me into a voicemail system that only allowed you to search by employee name, not department.

In a brief and courteous email to the PR person for Company A–the email address found via a press release–I explained that I was unable to reach the customer service department via phone, email, or the web. I requested that the PR person forward me the appropriate information and thanked them for their time.

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Ten days passed before I finally received a reply from the PR person, instructing me to visit the company’s web site, where I would “find contact information for [the company’s] customer service department.”

The customer service contact information had yet to materialize on the web site. I reiterated the problem via a second email — missing customer service information — and I once again requested the proper cpntact info. Eight days passed before I received this reply: “Dear Mr. Silverman, Please contact the appropriate department by mail.”

So I sent my third and final email: “If your job is to promote and protect the image of the company, you’re not doing a very good job. I realize that you’re not a customer service representative, but my request for something as simple as customer service contact information should be something you could, at the very least, grudgingly fulfill.”

Two hours later, I received a phone call from Company A’s Chief Executive Officer offering to replace the product at no charge, along with a warm apology. He promised the company would update its web site with the appropriate contact information. One hour after this conversation, I received an email from the PR person apologizing for his behavior. I was surprised by this turn of events, but only briefly.

Later that night, checking the my blog’s visitor’s log, I noticed four visits from Company A’s IP address between the time of my third email and the CEO’s phone call. Obviously the PR person used my email address to track this not-so-happy-customer back to my blog. From there, it’s not hard to find out what I do for a living.

Company B

Company B does not deal directly with consumers, only with distributors, who in turn work directly with retailers. These distributors generally don’t have an online presence. With little idea of where to find the product I wanted, I wrote an email to the public relations department at Company B, requesting information about the availability of the product.

Less than two hours after I sent my email, the President of Company B responded via email. He answered all of my questions, thanked me for being a customer, and provided me with a list of local retailers who sell the company’s product. He also offered some in-depth information about upcoming product releases and told me that he’d recently been in New York and had seen the particular product I was looking for on the shelf at a particular retailer.

Company C

I recently used Company C’s services and my experience was anything but pleasant. After a phone call and an in-person visit, the issue remain unreseolved. Company customer service reps were courteous, but they didn’t seem to grasp my complaint. The dispute resolution process had broken down, but I thought the public relations department might be able to see my complaint in a differen light.

In an email, I briefly explained the situation, noting that Company’s C customer service representatives had been professional and courteous but had misunderstood the situation. Perhaps someone inside the company who doesn’t normally deal with customer complaints would see the issue in a different light.

The following day, Company C’s PR person sent a brief note explaining that he would look into the issue as soon as possible. He asked me for some additional information and thanked me for being an “understanding customer.”

Two days later, Company C’s PR person telephoned me. Very pleasantly, he told me he had discussed my problem internally. After examining the issue, the company felt it had acted appropriately and that my complaints, while valid to a point, did not merit a refund. (Something I’d asked for a number of times.) I listened to the PR person, thanked him for his time, and told him that I appreciated his looking into an issue that fell outside of his usual responsibilities.

I felt I’d exhausted my options. If nothing else, I had been treated fairly after the fact — i.e., once I complained — but the initial poor experience meant I wouldn’t be using Company C’s services again. Two days after the phone call with the PR person from Company C, however, a customer service representative finally contacted me. Company C was going to issue me a partial refund. I emailed the PR person for Company C the next day and thanked him for his help.

“It was an interesting experience for me to deal directly with a customer,” he wrote. “I understood your complaints, but I also understood our position. After we spoke, I thought I could find a resolution that made everyone happy, and it looks I have. Take care.”

The reticence of Company A’s PR person was understandable; it’s not his job to hold a customer’s hand. But answering my simple request would have saved himself a lot of trouble.

At Company B, the CEO is the company’s best PR person. He seemed gratified to know that someone was looking for his company’s product, and he understood that personalized communication with customers can have its rewards.

My experience with Company C was the most interesting.  As noted in his email, the PR person said dealing with a customers directly helped him better understand the workings of his own employer. He acted as not just an advocate for his company, but as an advocate for the consumer. His actions completely changed my perception of Company C.

Public relations departments have a lot on the table without branching out into customer service. If customers do call or write, however, PR people should be ready to deal with the challenge. At the most basic level, the PR person’s work may have led the consumer to choose the company’s product or service in the first place. So the PR person should be equipped when their audience comes along complaining.

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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