PR Briefing: The dollars and cents of common sense

Probably the most valuable tool in any company’s public relations and marketing efforts is good old common sense. And the lack of a common-sense approach has gotten many a company into trouble.

Take, for example, the most recent public relations debacle by the big American carmakers. On their CEOs’ first trip to Washington to request bailout funds from the government, they flew in private jets from Detroit. Somehow, having your hands out for billions of dollars because you’re broke and then flaunting the extravagance of private jets under the noses of our elected leaders just doesn’t sit well.

The good news is that these CEOs figured out by their second trip to D.C. that perhaps a less lavish arrival would suit them better. The bad news is that it might have been too little and too late. The damage in bad press around the world, criticism from Congress and the impression that “these guys just don’t get it” was already embedded in everyone’s minds. Most certainly, their lack of common sense made their efforts much more difficult.

These CEOs and their public relations teams did exactly what so many others do – they were so busy with the business at hand that they failed to scrutinize the plan. In other words, they did not step back and look at things from an outsider’s perspective.

Common sense would have told them that appearances count. If you’re asking for money – lots of money – then walk and talk the part. If you’re asking your staff (and, in this instance, the country) to sacrifice, then you need to show your sacrifices.

When banking and corporate executives are announcing massive losses and layoffs, and then turn around and take millions in bonuses, that’s sticking a finger in the eye of common sense.

Looking at things from the outside in is not an easy task. That same bank executive who announces massive losses but manages to find a suitor who will bolster his company may just think he’s earned a bonus for his hard work. But the smart and savvy executive is the one who surrounds himself with people who will check his thinking and enlighten him with the outsider’s perspective.

This is true for individuals too.

Recently, reports of an employee who was a new hire at a company and then abruptly was fired surfaced. Seems the employee, just settled in his new job, was bad-mouthing his former employer to others around him. His new employer’s leadership heard about the comments and determined his behavior was inappropriate for their company.

Likewise, employees who blog nasty comments about their employers have found themselves out of jobs once their words are discovered.

Seek other perspectives

Public relations executives are not immune to the occasional lack-of-common-sense attack, either. Just a few weeks ago, bloggers were lamenting the mishap of a Ketchum VP who had flown to Memphis to present to his client, FedEx. On his way into town, he posted a disparaging comment about Memphis – headquarters to FedEx – on Twitter. One of his Twitter followers was a FedEx employee who found his comment disrespectful and sent an e-mail – copying FedEx’s leadership and board of directors – about the comment and suggesting that perhaps FedEx’s money during these difficult times was better spent with someone else.

I can guarantee that that Ketchum VP never thought a whimsical comment posted without a second thought would land him in such a difficult position. Had he taken a little bit of time to think it through, he would never have Tweeted that comment.

Many years ago, my sister, who was working as a contract computer programmer for a large company, decided to take a week’s vacation. Thinking that she was self-employed – which she technically was – she could just take the vacation and not bother to tell anyone. She returned from her vacation to find she had no contract job.

My sister, like so many others, would have done well to step back from her initial thinking and seek the perspective of others, who might have counseled her to let her client know of her plans. Even the most innocent of intentions can be seen differently through another’s eyes.

Sadly, common sense is not intuitive to everyone. And, to make matters more complicated, it’s subjective. What makes perfect common sense to one person is utterly wrong to another.

The advice I offer my clients is to listen to many perspectives. Seek out those who think differently than you. Seek out independent thinkers who aren’t afraid to offer you advice that you may not initially like. And, whatever you do, don’t buy into “group think” — the kind of collective thinking that is safe because the leader came up with the idea.

Look for opinions from confidants outside your company. Hire consultants who are trained to be your eyes and ears outside your walls.

Most importantly, don’t shut yourself down from those who can bring new light to a situation. Be open to those perspectives that challenge your own. They may save you from a terrible public relations nightmare in the end.

Laurie J. Storey-Manseau is principal of StoreyManseau LLC, a full-service marketing and communications firm in Concord. She can be reached at 603-229-0278, or