UPDATE 3/1: I’ve been emailing with the editor of PRNEWS, who has invited me to write a rebuttal. I have done so, and he has promised to publish it. In the meantime, the O’Brien article now has an editor’s note at the top, rather than at the bottom:
[Editor’s Note:The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the PRNEWS staff. We invite opposing essays from readers.]
Up until 10 or 15 years ago, there was real trade journalism in the communication and PR business. Actual journalists doing real reporting and providing expert commentary. I did this kind of work for Ragan Communications, for many years. There was also Jack O’Dwyer’s Newsletter. And there was PRNEWS.
Those publishers were staffed by professional reporters who were accountable for their livelihoods to professional editors who were accountable for their livelihoods to publishers who saw themselves as accountable to readers who wanted legitimate news and perspective on the industry in which they worked.
Trade journalism in the PR and communication industry is not slowly fading away, like local journalism in small towns.
It is almost gone.
Much of what you read on these kinds of sites these days is lame, innocuous “PR takes” on current events. The rest is free junk they get from agency PR people and others looking for a free platform to get visibility. I’ve called this stuff journalistic “pink slime”—looks like real stuff, reads like real stuff, but really just hot off a vanity press.
Most of of this material is harmless, as its authors’ main motivation in publishing them isn’t to provoke a conversation, but to preen in front of peers and prospects.
Not the case with a piece that PR News published last week, titled, “There’s No Such Thing As An Effective Apology Anymore,” written by Tim O’Brien, owner of a Pittsburgh PR agency called O’Brien Communications. I had to read it three times to believe it had been published.
Then I wrote a letter to its author, who I discovered was a LinkedIn connection. He isn’t, anymore.
Tim, I read your piece on PRNEWS this week.
In which you urged CEOs and presumably other public leaders that, “When you’re under attack, in the end, all that matters is your survival. To survive, recognize bullies for who they are and what they intend to accomplish. There’s almost no scenario where apologizing ends well for you.”
In which you urge CEOs that their crisis PR strategy ought to be “as blunt as a fist to the face.”
In which you describe that strategy:
“Don’t give in. The sooner your attackers understand you will not surrender, the weaker their attacks become. You have to commit to this from the outset, and make sure everyone in the organization is united. Any break in the ranks will serve up your destruction.
“There will be no apology. You don’t need to make the issue of whether or not to apologize a public discussion. Just don’t apologize and make it obvious you have no plans to do so.
“Later, when the heat dies down and the imminent risks of the situation have passed, you can and should reflect. At that point, you will have time and space to acknowledge what you could have done differently. Perhaps you will make changes.”
A few questions:
Were the 500,000 people exposed and the 2,259 people killed in the Bhopal gas leak in 1984 “bullies”? The flora and fauna destroyed by the Exxon Valdez spill, or the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico—were the reporters who covered those events “bullies”? How about the reporters and FAA investigators who got to the bottom of Boeing’s cost-conscious killing of a few hundred passengers. Just bullies?
I agree that many public apologies are ineffective. That’s because many public apologies are disingenuous. “I have failed to live up to my own high standards.” “To anyone who took offense, I am truly sorry.” Or most recently, Phil Mickelson’s artful synergy of resentment, martyrdom and self-pity. To those kinds of PR apologies, I agree with you, a more effective response would be the Popeye Defense: I yam what I yam. But even that is better than the Robert De Niro “Taxi Driver” response that you’re recommending. Isn’t it?
Your field is called public relations, Tim, and its pioneers, even back in the bad old 20th century, would have found your blanket recommendation both brutal and stupid. And the news must have reached Pittsburgh by now that what we’re up to these days is stakeholder capitalism. That means listening to your critics from the society that gives you permission to operate, and while not always apologizing to them—not automatically dismissing them all as cancel-culture creeps.
With PR advice like yours, who needs corporate attorneys?
Actually, your clients do—because every corporate attorney I know would give better, more nuanced crisis advice than this.
Speaking of your clients, who are your clients, Tim? I visited your website, and learned, “O’Brien does not publicly divulge its client roster.”
Yeah, if I was one of your clients, I’d want you to keep in on the DL, too.
I think I’ll publish the above, with your commentary or without, on Monday.
Like the bully I am.
No reply from O’Brien, but I must not be the only one who noted the imbecility of the post. Sometime between my reading of it on Friday and a revisit on Sunday, PRNEWS added a disclaimer that doesn’t appear on their other guest columns: “The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the PRNEWS staff.“
This morning, I’ve sent this post to the editors at PRNEWS, suggesting they pull the piece down.
No apology needed.