Karen, Go Make the U.S. Popular by Friday

And you wonder why Public Relations gets a bad rap.

PR is really about making sure the truth of your story surfaces clearly and is heard. The dark side of it could be seen as spinning lies for the benefit of greedy shareholders and fat cat executives, but I prefer to see the nobleness in this always-hated-but-first-to-get-blamed-when-things-don’t-look-so-good profession.

I read today that Karen Hughes, former communications advisor to Bush (W), has taken a job at high profile PR firm Burston Marstellar. Oddly enough, she’s going to be working with former Hillary Clinton campaign manager Mark Penn. They are billing themselves as a “bipartisan brainstrust” on strategy and crisis communication, according to the WSJ. Call me cynical, but seems they didn’t do so well on their previous projects….but hey, experience is worth a lot, too, and they do know how to play the game.

I found it amusing to read in the WSJ that Hughes “left her State Department position…after making little progress on her mission to improve the U.S. image around the world.” Wow. Talk about an uphill battle.

Here’s the thing: PR cannot just come along and – poof – make you thinner, prettier, or more popular if the fundamentals are not there. Many CEO’s think they can operate poorly but just slap a coat of good PR over everything and their reputation is magically transformed. Doesn’t work that way. PR can take the good things and bring them to light, or downplay the bad things, but if tasked to conjure up news or goodwill out of thin air, they’d be better served hiring Dumbledore. PR is about taking good raw materials and shaping something out of it. Leave them with nothing and you will get nothing.

I’ve worked with CEO’s who have expected to get coverage over nothing that anyone really cares about, like appointing a new VP no one has heard of, or launching a new point release of software that only 300 companies use in the first place. “But Microsoft got covered in Business Week on their point release, why can’t we?” Um, maybe because we’re not MSFT and no one’s portfolios are riding on our results? Or worse, they tried to get covered as an “innovator” when they couldn’t even give everyone in the office access to Outlook scheduling. Walk the talk, people. Walk the talk.

The article went further to say “despite traveling around the globe – sometimes accompanied by U.S. sports stars – and beefing up the public-diplomacy budget, Ms. Hughes wasn’t able to change the world’s view of the U.S., according to polls showing the Iraq War continued to harm American’s image.”

I’m not making any political statements here. Just saying people are not always as stupid as we’d like to believe, no matter what message you try to feed them. If people do not agree with your foreign policies (or product choices or environmental impact or the poor way in which you treat customers) then no amount of glossy, surface, star parades can change that. It gets down to who you really are and what you really do for customers. Companies that think good PR is this easy are kidding themselves. If it were, everyone would be doing it.

Would love to hear from the PR folks out there on their experiences with this. You guys really are unsung heroes most of the time.

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