Perception is reality. The statement is true for large corporations, small businesses, and individuals. Public relations is all about perception–how the public views you and what you do. Public relations is not marketing. Before any product or service is sold, the buyer has to be convinced that the seller is worthy of their time and commitment. In short, the buyer has to like the seller. Public relations shapes and informs the public’s perception of a particular individual or business through the dissemination of information and the power of persuasion. Whether you are an individual looking for a better job or a small business seeking new customers, the public’s perception of you or your business has to be positive before any marketing strategy can be successful. No marketing campaign can ever be successful if the public distrusts the company that’s peddling the product. Let’s look at some examples:
1982 Tylenol Extra Strength Capsule Poisoning
In the fall of 1982, seven people died suddenly after ingesting Tylenol capsules. An investigation determined that the capsules had been laced with cyanide. The news and panic spread like wildfire. The bad news could have spelled the end of a longstanding, reputable company, Johnson & Johnson. How the company handled the crisis still serves as a template for how to handle any public relations crisis. Let’s look at what Johnson and Johnson did. First, they immediately informed consumers of the danger. They didn’t make excuses and they didn’t try to conceal anything from the public. In fact, they told the public not to consume any Tylenol product and recalled all Tylenol capsules from the marketplace. Second, they collaborated with local and federal law enforcement officials to discover the source of the tampering. Third, they improved the safety of their product by making their capsule containers tamper proof. Johnson & Johnson recovered from the Tylenol tampering and it was never considered a scandal because the company did the right thing in every instance–a) they informed the public, b) they made no excuses and put public safety first, and c) they took steps to ensure that their products would be safer in the future. The public will forgive mistakes and errors. What they won’t forget or forgive is deception, self-interest, and cover-ups.
2002-Present Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal
When news reports first surfaced in Boston that the highest ranking Church officials knew about priests abusing young children, Church officials denied the media allegations and said the media was trying to destroy the Church. After being confronted with his own internal church documents Cardinal Bernard Law denied any wrongdoing and said the church was being treated unfairly. Such strategies that were initiated in Boston have played out across the country much to the chagrin of faithful and good Catholics and the consternation of law enforcement officials and child safety advocates.
While the Tylenol matter was a case study in how to handle a public relations crisis, the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal has been a textbook case in how NOT to handle a crisis. Unfortunately, some church officials chose to attack the victims of sex abuse as well as the media instead of coming to grips with the fact that they had a real crisis on their hands.
I’ve offered these two cases as extreme examples of how a good public relations plan can affect a company’s or an organization’s success. Any good public relations plan will include such simple things as one would find in an honest, healthy relationship between two individuals:
- honest disclosure of the facts
- when an error or mistake occurs, admit it and fix it
- the goal should always be the welfare and health of the other person
- communicate, communicate, communicate
Public relations is all about relationship–whether it be corporate or individual. Remember, people do business with those whom they like and trust. If that’s your goal as a business, you’ll be successful in communicating with the public.