What makes a catastrophe a “PR catastrophe?”

by Dan Ward

Alyson Shontell’s Oct. 13 piece in the Business Insider reads like the view of a true business outsider.

Shontell explores 12 so-called “PR Catastrophes,” leading her article with the question, “Is PR dead?”  First of all, 12 incidents involving individual companies from as far back as the 1980s are insufficient evidence at best of the death of an industry.  But more importantly, I think many of Shontell’s examples are mis-labeled.

What makes a catastrophe a PR catastrophe?  Is it a PR catastrophe simply because it occurs in public view?  Just about any corporate “catastrophe” would qualify. In my view, the incident must have either been caused by a failed communication strategy or by negligence on the part of the public relations team to qualify as a PR catastrophe.  Shontell, instead, lists several incidents where PR either had little impact, or in fact, saved the day.

For instance, Shontell calls the announcement of Steve Jobs’ leave of absence a PR catastrophe, because it resulted in drop in Apple’s share price from $92.70 on Jan. 8 to $82.33 on Jan. 20.  She claims it as a PR catastrophe because Jobs had earlier denied that he was ill.

I’m not defending that denial, but any time an inspirational CEO who is inextricably linked with a company’s brand takes a leave of absence, expect the share price to fall.  By Shontell’s reasoning, should we declare the return of the share price to more than $94 by Jan. 28 a PR success?

Shontell goes on to suggest that the 1982 case in which Tylenol capsules were laced with cyanide qualifies as a PR catastrophe, again using a drop in share price as the example.  Sorry, Ms. Shontell, but if you would speak with any PR “Insider” in the businesses you cover, they will likely tell you that this case is a shining example of public relations at its best.  Actions speak louder than words, and the actions Tylenol took to recall its products and institute new industry-leading safety practices saved a company that today remains a leader in the global pain medication market.

That’s not to say that all of her examples were misguided.  Where was Merck’s PR team when it became clear to insiders that Vioxx posed a heart attack risk?  Where was BP’s PR team when Tony Hayward flew home to watch the yacht races?

When PR plays a role in damaging a brand’s reputation, it owns a share of the responsibility, but just because a catastrophe makes the evening news doesn’t mean PR is to blame.


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