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Take Pity on PR People Stuck with Cowardly Big-Shot Business Executives

10/20/2013 03:01 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Imagine being the PR mouthpiece for those cowardly business executives who are so driven by greed and fear they take off out the back door if they see a microphone, a camera, or a notepad outside their office. Too scared and too embarrassed to explain the way they manage, they choose to scurry.

One of the benefits of working in Toronto is that I'm exposed to quality media -- The Globe and Mail and The National Post on my doorstep all week long. The Sunday New York Times arrives mid-evening on Saturdays. CBC and CTV national news channels and two local news ones, and from the United States CNN, Bloomberg, CNBC and more come over Lake Ontario. ABC, NBC, CBS, HBO...

Vanity Fair arrived today, The Economist yesterday, Fortune today, Canadian Business is beside me. My work breaks involve drinking coffee -- I'm a gold card member at a Starbucks inside one of four Chapters stores reasonably close, all with "free" magazines, too. I still listen to the radio in the car, tuned to CBC Radio One. Plus web sites.

Dozens of journalists are connected to me on Twitter, too.

So it's easy to watch other journalists' coverage of the rats scurrying.

And maybe they are not rats. Most executives we disdain either hide or stride past with muscular fat guys blocking our view.

They get a junior to write an email that does not really answer a reporter's question.

Their silence leaves us thinking they are rats. Cowards for sure. Sometimes liars.

There certainly seem to be a lot of big shot executives who make it their job to NOT stand up and to NOT BE counted. They do NOT anticipate nor appreciate the needs of the public to know what's going on in business and politics. And they do NOT understand their moral and legal obligations to communicate.

On a positive note, there are a few executives and their PR people who actually understand the benefits of commenting openly and honestly.

Canada has taken the tragedies in the Bangladesh garment industry very hard. We're somewhat proud of the real "Joe Fresh" (Joe Mimran) and his boss Galen Weston, both of whom have noted that other customers of the collapsed factory are not acting responsibly.

Joe and Galen are showing us that the days of hiding behind a long chain of middlemen, consultants, subsidiaries, deal-makers, and distributors are over. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Mark Kelley knows how hard it is to get real people to explain what they do, in Bangladesh and in Canada.

Acting responsibly means being open and leaders are open because:

- They satisfy curiosity because their commentary is of interest to the public.

- They meet legal and moral disclosure obligations because their commentary is in the public interest.

- They benefit themselves, their organization, their employees, and often, their industry.

Fulfilling a promise.

"Public interest" means what, exactly?

In my previous column "Don't Insult PR People by Calling Them Marketers," I promised to clarify this "public interest" stuff.

"Of interest to the public" is the traditional decision-making factor used by journalists for the vast majority of stories.

Lots of people are interested. Let's run a story.

That's why the weekend box office totals are reported every Monday. Box office numbers do not matter in any important way, but people are curious. It's why Nascar is covered widely and Formula One stories are rare. It's why there are features on pumpkin carving this week.

Ironically, "in the public interest" covers topics most of the public are not all that interested in.

The basic idea of "in the public interest" is similar to "will make this city, province, country, hemisphere a better place in which to live." Or, "it is in the best interests of the public."

Senate reform, or not, is extremely important to the Canadian democratic system. It's "in the public interest."

Yet the only reason most Canadians care about senate reform is that there are senate-based scandals this fall, involving Pam Wallin -- we knew her when she was a TV reporter -- and Mike Duffy -- we knew him when he was a TV reporter -- and that First Nations guy Patrick Brazeau who got his hair cut on TV after losing the boxing match to Justin Trudeau. (Who knew Justin was schooled in pugilism?)

Journalists have to sort their stories into the "of interest to the public" and "in the public interest" categories, and PR people have to work harder than ever to get their senior managers trained and tuned to be involved in the latter category.

That's because regulators in both Canada and the United Kingdom made decisions in October making it easier for journalists to cover executives without the executives' cooperation.

The Ontario Press Council (OPC), which passes judgement on ethical matters, spoke on two cases involving anonymous sources used by The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail in front page scandal-mongering stories about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, his brother Doug (a Toronto city council member) and drugs. The OPC said both papers were reporting in the public interest. And the mayor, his brother, and drugs, are of course, also "of interest to the public."

Communicators are worldly folks, or at least lots of us are, and we think about things like freedom of the press, journalistic integrity, and coping with sources who are liars. Our goal is, or should be, to keep our clients from being liars.

Over in the United Kingdom, a story in The Guardian reports Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, "has launched a robust defence of journalists who break the law pursuing investigations that have a genuine public interest."

We in PR have our work cut out for us.

With regulators and governments clearing the way for journalists to do more and better investigative reporting, those of us in Public Relations need to be nosing around our own organizations, looking for circumstances that could morph into scandal or controversy.

Why worry about journalists using anonymous sources and skirting close to illegality?

We avoid this when PR people lead upward, guiding executives to better, more open and more honest, behaviour so we do not end up with unnecessary confrontation.