Forget Spin. PR is About Doing the Right Thing.

June 20th, 2019

I don’t remember how we got word of the deaf advocacy protest. A staffer may have seen it on social media or the Department of Human Services might have given us a heads up. Either way, when it came across my desk, I have to admit, I was not exactly enthused.

It was May of 2016. At the time, I was South Dakota Governor (Gov.) Daugaard’s communications director. As a child of deaf parents, Gov. Daugaard arguably had done more than any other sitting Governor for the deaf community. I lightened up a bit when I learned it wasn’t a demonstration against any specific policy, but an organized protest that was scheduled to occur at state capitols in multiple states. Still, I didn’t love the optics.

To prepare for potential media calls, I thought I’d walk by the gathering and watch for activity on social media but otherwise resume my day-to-day tasks. But the governor had other plans.

He wanted to join the protestors. No pictures. No social media posts. No tipping off the press. Those were the instructions he gave. To him, it wasn’t a photo op.   

The scheduler and I followed him and the First Lady down to the spot outside the Capitol where the protestors were gathered. You could see the looks of curiosity as we approached the demonstration. When the deaf individuals and their advocates realized this unexpected guest was the governor, well … their faces lit up. Gov. Daugaard communicated with each of them in sign language, asked them their names and made them feel welcome at their state capitol. They shook his hand and took their own pictures. I’m willing to bet it made their day.

It was an exceptional demonstration of public relations. Partly because it was unexpected, but mostly because it was centered upon the right thing.

“Doing the right thing” and “public relations” (PR) often aren’t associated with one another. “Spin” is a more familiar term when people talk about PR. So is the saying that “all PR is good PR.” These misconceptions held among people outside of the field are certainly not helped by PR pros like Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book titled, “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.”

The truth is that the best PR is based upon doing the right thing.

There are a whole host of companies, organizations and individuals out there stepping up their philanthropy game. Just recently Walmart and Sam’s Club partnered up with Feeding America and challenged its suppliers and customers to collaborate with them to fight hunger. Last year, AbbVie, a biopharmaceutical company, donated $310 million to charities like the Ronald McDonald House and St. Jude’s. Earlier this month, former linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs’ Donnie Edwards took 30 WWII veterans to Normandy for the anniversary of D-Day and helped fund their trip.

Whatever form they take, these instances of philanthropy are fantastic. When a private entity uses the wealth they’ve acquired to help people in need, we all win. BUT the sole purpose of charity should not be PR. The hardware store should give that donation to the Girl Scouts because they want young girls in their community to have more opportunities; rather than to be on the front page of the local newspaper. The Rotary Club should write a check to the children’s hospital because doing so aligns with their values. Not because they want to position themselves as superior to the local Kiwanis chapter.

This makes sense at a small, local level. It also makes sense for brands with a national presence. In other words, the order of priorities should be:

  1. Doing the right thing
  2. Getting PR

When these two things are reversed, people see through it. An organization probably won’t refuse a contribution if motives are self-serving, but media can decline to cover the story. Their audiences can tell what is real and what is not.

I’m sure if I had arranged for a photographer to come along with us to the deaf advocacy protest, or if I’d had my phone out to Facebook Live the interactions, the protestors would have been less enthused with the governor. People know a publicity stunt when they see it.

When someone – a person, a company, an organization – does something good for the sake of doing good, that’s a story. That has value. That’s effective. When it’s real and not forced, there’s potential. That’s what good PR is – finding those instances of kindness, generosity and passion, and sharing the story with a wider audience. It’s about sharing the right thing.

When Bozell and Jacobs’ doors opened 98 years ago, one of our founders, Morris Jacobs, put it this way to the Omaha World-Herald:

Do the right thing. Make a good product. Then tell your story from the standpoint of what it means to the other fellow – in such a way that people can understand you. That’s advertising, public relations – it’s selling.”