I just fired the Chairman

24 Apr

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Peter Heath, MPRINZ, Due North 

I’ve blogged before about the need for public relations practitioners to stand up for themselves if they want to be taken seriously. To believe in their own value. To push back if they feel their expertise and advice is being overlooked. And to have the guts to ‘consider their positions’ if this becomes an ongoing issue.

Today I practiced what I preach. After many months of being frustrated by a client’s refusal to engage with us on anything other than an arm’s-length basis, I “withdrew the services” of Due North after being told by the organisation’s Chairman that he just wasn’t interested in our advice and wanted us simply to do as we were instructed. By him.

It strikes me that we in PR are sometimes our own worst enemies. Too frequently I see cases where a communication advisor has quite obviously acted against best practice and I just know that somewhere in the mix there is an executive somewhere higher up the food-chain who has told that hapless individual: “I don’t care what you think. Just do it!”

Whether it’s issuing a piece of puff dressed up as ‘news’ or some more serious element of corporate misbehaviour, it’s a common-enough story.

And then, of course, it’s those “devious PR people” who get the blame in the court of public opinion.

I don’t write this with any sense of bluster or bravado. Just sadness and a large dose of trepidation. Ours is a small consultancy and we struggle to find our niche among some of NZ’s larger players. We need desperately every cent of business we can find. So firing clients is not a decision that is ever taken at all lightly.

But in this case it needed to happen. For our own self-respect, if nothing else.

No, I write this solely in the hope that it will give other PR practitioners elsewhere, struggling under similar dictatorial regimes, the inspiration, courage and motivation they might need to ‘consider’ their own positions.

Here’s the correspondence, with all identifying details deleted:

Good afternoon, [redacted]

This is meant with sincere respect: we would be delighted to continue working with [redacted] but I’m afraid we’re not able to do so purely as an order-taker and news release distributor.

Where we can add value is from the inside. [Redacted] faces considerable reputational and relationship challenges and, given the opportunity, we are able to help you navigate these. That is the role that interests and engages us professionally, and which will keep our team up late at night to fight your corner.

Of course there would be times where our advice and guidance would need to be tempered by operational, political or commercial considerations. But we prefer to operate as close and trusted advisors to the Board and to the management team because that is where we feel we can add value and provide insightful and meaningful guidance.

If that is a role that you feel we can play I’d be delighted to work with you on making it happen. But otherwise I’m afraid I must withdraw our services.

With very best personal regards, etc

6 Responses to “I just fired the Chairman”

  1. Claudia Macdonald April 24, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

    Well done Peter. It takes a brave man but you have done the right thing. More power to your professional elbow. We’ve declined to pitch for business we feel their brief ethically or professional compromises us. It’s scary but you feel empowered. As the saying goes, one door closes, another opens.

    • Peter Heath April 28, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

      Thanks, Claudia. Very kind words, greatly appreciated. And you’re quite right – a new opportunity has indeed come knocking. This very week. I love it when life does that…

  2. Katie Mathison April 28, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

    The letter you wrote won’t improve the recipient’s impression of PR: it’s more likely to brass them off further. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly – a whiff of sarcasm in “with sincere respect”, resentment in “order-taker”, and accusation in not being held as “close and trusted advisers”. It might have given you satisfaction to share it, but you didn’t need to: the article stood for itself, but stands worse for including it.

  3. PC SMITH May 2, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Let’s face it, we serve in an industry with an appalling reputation for employing lightweights fabulously skilled in self promotion and in which mediocrity is accepted as a norm. In that context, and if they can get away with it, one can only nod in accepting admiration of their success.

    More often than not, the performance of practitioners is indeed a reflection of leaders whose ignorance of corporate communications and strategic comms is jaw dropping. Perhaps that is the case in this article.

    Interesting to know if there was an in-house practitioner whose advice was being similarly dismissed. After all, it seems we are also in an industry where in-house “managers” administer the outsourcing of their profession rather than roll up their sleeves and practice it.

    The main plank in the restoration and management of the industry’s reputation might well be if it divorces itself entirely from the catch-all and cringeworthy “PR” descriptor. It would be Absolutely Fabulous if it wasn’t – as this website says – all about PR.

    • Peter Heath May 4, 2015 at 8:55 am #

      Good points well raised, I thought. There’s no doubt in my mind that the ‘lightweight’ factor does indeed contribute to the disregard in some quarters for what we do.

      In this case no, there isn’t an in-house bod. Which reflects the priority the Board places on effective stakeholder communication and makes the task of attempting to do the job properly ‘from the outside’ even more challenging.

  4. Alla Zaykova May 27, 2015 at 11:43 pm #

    Reblogged this on Media, Comms & Pop Culture.

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