A few years back I gave a talk on government relations to a room of third-year communications students. Before introducing me, the lecturer took me aside and quietly asked me not to mention the words ‘spin’ or the ‘dark arts’ side of PR.
Standing around handing out goodie bags was never my PR drink of choice, so needless-to-say, the students got a real-world look at what really goes on, both from a corporate perspective as well as insights into political machinations around issue and message management.
Needless-to-say the words ‘spin’ and ‘dark arts’ were frequently utilised, much to the horror of the lecturer. The reasoning was simple, I was there to talk about what happens in the real-world, so giving a flowery ‘isn’t PR all nice’ wasn’t going to help these young students about to enter the job market.
As much as people dislike ‘Dirty Politics’, the cut and thrust of politics and business does involve spin, leaks and tip-offs to favourite journalists, and what I call ‘The Pit Strategy’.
The Pit Strategy operates at the other end and other side of the PR ledger, and is usually invoked when a business or someone is under intense pressure by the public, media, regulators and politicians.
The strategies are subtle, but the objective is crystal clear. If in the shit, or colloquially known as the pit, you have two options.
The first option is the obvious PR play, designed to ‘turn things around’ alongside the need to sort out how you got in the pit in the first place.
The second option is commercially more cunning, more strategic, and as one client put it “quite beautiful”. Put simply, the Pit Strategy is to pull as many into the pit as possible, creating a cluster mess for others (usually the protagonists and competitors), cause issue confusion and fatigue, if done well, distract those looking at the issue to look at something (or someone) else. Some call it ‘sharing the love’.
In most cases, you won’t know if you or your company are being dragged into the pit until you start getting calls by media or officials or some representative body concerned about the reputation of the wider ‘industry’. However, by the time this happens someone else is running the agenda and setting the scene.
The question is how to counter something like this. The answer is quite straightforward, but it involves being proactive on several fronts and spending shareholders’ money that sometimes doesn’t provide an immediate ROI.
It is also where vale of traditional positive PR initiatives come into play. Things like taking the time to show consumers (and selected political audiences) what the company is doing in the market, showing how it plays an active part in the community, talking up its people.
By getting out in front and running proactive PR strategies, the ability of operators to drag you into the pit becomes more difficult, but not impossible. There is always something that can be used to get companies into the pit.
The advice is simple. Be proactive, and build up reputational goodwill. You never know when you’re going to need it.
- Carrick Graham is managing director of GMS Management Limited.