Saturday, December 1, 2007

Good PR Practices When the News is Bad

I read with great disappointment on Friday that Keep Polk County Beautiful's executive director, Janis Davis, was fired on Nov. 19. You can read The Ledger article here. You can read a sloppy and mildly inaccurate version of the story the News Chief published here.

This is a sad story, and not one that Keep Polk County Beautiful was anxious to talk about, I'm sure. But I think their actions in light of this unfortunate event are a good example of what to do when negative publicity comes your way: be forthright with information and don't avoid the media.

By all appearances, KPCB President Tom Parrotte provided all requested information to the media. He explained why the Board of Directors chose to terminate Davis, and he pointed out that despite Davis's judgment error, she was "a real go-getter" for the organization.

In a situation such as this, I think Parrotte took a good public relations approach by not bashing Davis in the media, but just stating the facts.

Earlier today, I stated in this blog that from a public relations standpoint, I don't think I would have issued a press release on this firing. An email I received this morning from James, a PR professional, brought up some good points and I have since changed my stance. This is what he wrote:

"It’s not clear from your blog or the media report who took the first steps relative to the media. My counsel would have been for the organization to seek meetings with its regular beat reporters and tell them what had transpired and why. Perhaps that is what happened. My experience has been it is far better to take that first step when there’s bad news to report. Hiding bad news is never a good strategy since it makes the media wonder what else is lurking in the background. Often this is a hard approach for senior management to take, but it is the right one.

Think about the Tylenol situation many years ago and how they handled the problem. That approach is still considered a sterling best practice."

Later, James responded with some additional comments that I also think are great ideas:

"Before initiating contact with the media regarding the termination, I would have recommended notification to employees and members, as well as any board members not involved in the matter. Also, any major funding sources like United Way or major supporting foundations. It’s never good to have employees or members of a non-profit or other stakeholders read about serious internal matters in the media."

Let's face it, this isn't news you want everyone to know, especially when you're a non-profit organization that relies on public and private funding to carry out your mission. This is the type of news that might jeopardize future funding.

If an organization chooses not to follow James' sound advice, and simply wait to see if the media inquires about a situation such as this, I certainly wouldn't recommend telling them, "No comment," or "This is a personnel issue, and we don't discuss personnel issues."

In response to James' statement about it not being clear whether the media approached KPCB or KPCB reported the firing to the media, the time frame makes one doubt that KPCB approached the media about this. Davis was fired on Nov. 19 and The Ledger reported it on Nov. 30. The News Chief reported it on Dec. 1, which makes it look like they saw it first in The Ledger.

To me, this news item drives home another important public relations topic, especially when it comes to non-profit groups. Leaders of non-profit organizations must maintain the utmost integrity and they should ensure that all of their actions are above reproach at all times. It might be an unfair truth, but the truth is that many volunteers and donors judge a non-profit organization by the actions of its leaders.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that I served as the executive director at Keep Polk County Beautiful for three years. Davis took my place when I resigned.

Best of luck to KPCB in its search to replace Davis. In spite of this misstep, her shoes will be tough to fill.

To all you PR professionals out there, I would love to get your thoughts and opinions regarding how this situation was handled.

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