Public Relations is More than Negative vs. Positive Publicity

I’m going to violate our Orange Slices policy of not commenting on how companies handle public relations and media relations. In reading this morning’s Wall Street Journal, I was stunned to read the comments [subscription required] by Bayer CropScience CEO Bill Buckner regarding a tragic explosion at one of its chemical plants in 2008. Buckner is quoted as acknowledging that his company’s response efforts created “confusion and concern” because the company had tried to keep details of the explosion confidential out of a desire to “limit negative publicity.”

Note: If you cannot get to the WSJ article through the link above, you may be able to access it by searching for “bayer wall street journal” and then clicking on the first link, which apparently bypasses the newspaper’s pay wall.

I thought we had moved past the time when corporate CEOs think that they can hide or obscure information simply because they want it that way. That is difficult to do in the best of circumstances. It is virtually impossible to do when your building explodes, fireballs shoot hundreds of feet in the air, two employees are killed and rescue workers are injured. And it did not go unnoted that the chemical the plant produced was the same chemical that leaked from the Union Carbide plant in India that killed 4,000 people in 1984.

However, for our profession, the real issue is not the misguided desire to “limit negative publicity.” It is the continued misunderstanding and misperception that public relations is about good or negative publicity. Public relations is about managing communications with stakeholders who can help or hurt an organization’s mission by what they think, believe, say and do. It is an interactive process and it is an open process that builds trust, understanding and credibility. When the CEO of a major company talks about limiting information and obscuring details so that it could better shape the “public debate,” then we know our profession still has a long way to go in making our voice heard at the management table.

Engagement marketing

If you have seen RLF’s brochure or website, there is a quirky sentence that seems to capture people’s attention. And I am glad it does, because that is why we put it there.

“Ingenuity has a color.” That sentence, combined with the picture of my bare feet, has generated quite a few conversations over the past few months. And that was the point.

Most of us are exposed to hundreds or thousands (depending on which sources you believe) of marketing messages each day. And most of us are pretty good at ignoring those messages.

Effective marketing – whether it comes through a news article, a collateral piece, a TV commercial or a website – is engaging. It’s designed to provoke questions and conversations, and ultimately bring brand and customer home.

Not every conversation I’ve had in the last few months will turn into a new client, but every conversation helps get people a little more engaged with RLF, and gives me a chance to tell people how we help companies that are industry leaders, or have the courage to become industry leaders.

This is also how we think about helping our clients. How can the public relations, collateral, advertising, marketing and other services we provide help them engage their customers? What message will help our clients start new dialogues with their customers, colleagues and industries?

For us, it’s “Ingenuity has a color.” And that color for us, is orange. Vividly rich, bold and a yard off the beaten path of corporate colors. We picked orange so we would stand out from the crowd, and show our clients that we could help them stand out too.

Reframing perceptions


That is what my wife, daughters and I kept saying last night as we watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. It was a visual and musical feast of color, precision, costumes, pageantry and surprises.

Much has been made about the desire of China to use the Olympic Games to help transform their image on the world stage. It’s working. For my young daughters, the predominant imprint of China in their minds will be a country that blends magic, beauty and technology. And the sheer size of the spectacle – from the number of synchronized performers to the successive waves of fireworks – conveyed the message that China is not looking to arrive on the world stage; China is here.

Companies and organizations can take a lesson here. China has shown us both style and substance; powerful forces in transforming the way that people talk, think, believe and act towards their country.

The Olympics will not whitewash away the many troubling issues that China must deal with – human rights, environmental pollution, unfair trade practices. But China set out to proactively and deliberately reframe and broaden the world’s view of their country and their people. It took a tremendous investment of time, money, resources and faith to make it  happen, but they didn’t back down from the challenges that led up to the opening of the games.



The relaunch of our website brings some new additions. We’ve added additional information about the type of work we do for our clients, we will soon unveil an expanded work section that showcases specific examples and we have started our own blog.

When our clients ask about blogging, we suggest they think about all the reasons they want to blog, who the audience is, and how they will keep up with the time it takes to blog. We have taken our own advice.

We started Orange Slices to highlight examples of good work in our industry, contribute insights, to inform and enlighten, and to begin a dialogue with our colleagues, our clients, and talented young professionals. We plan to begin by updating the blog at least weekly, so we encourage you to check back.

The other reason we hope you’ll return to this spot? To give us your comments and feedback. Without your input, a blog is just like a website: one-way communication.