Villing & Company

Four Tips for Choosing Your PR Battles

Call me strange, but I find that warfare offers a great deal of metaphors applicable to the public relations industry. It's probably because I cut my PR teeth in the political world.

Still, the writings of the famous combat strategist Sun Tzu offer sage advice for today's PR practitioner. For example, Sun once said, "The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won." How true for anyone managing a brand today.

The problem, of course, is that too often in PR the battle chooses us, not the other way around. Which makes it all the more critical to control what you can, and keep your head down when necessary.

Not that PR peeps can afford to let grass grow under their feet, mind you. To help determine when you should act, and when you might need to keep your powder dry, here are some tips:

1. Know what you can control. So a pilot at your airline apparently succumbed to a medical condition and terrified passengers mid-flight? Ok, that's probably out of your control. Splitting your company into two and creating a needless obstacle course for customers? That one you can think through a bit more.

The key to knowing what you can control is identifying the market forces that are prompting a given business action. What's the cause of the effect you're making? If after rigorous self-examination it's found the forces are largely internal, you'll need an honest assessment of the likely reaction from your customers before you pull the trigger. And don't take the easy way out. Dig into social media chatter, case studies – anything that can be useful in determining how your action will impact customer perception.

2. Ask yourself questions. What's the business objective we are hoping to achieve? Is there another/better way to do it? How are our customers better off because of what we're doing here? Are we prepared to respond to negative feedback? Positive? Ask yourself anything and everything that can help you prepare for the aftermath of an initiative.

3. "Know when to walk away. Know when to run." When I was flacking for politicians, it was common to see statements issued piling on in the given public outrage du jour. The problem is that it only takes an ambitious reporter a free afternoon to discover when your statement was hypocritical or at best, opportunistic.

Remember: The public doesn't need to hear from you on every topic. It's in the PR flack's DNA to be proactive and capitalize on the hot news of the day, but it should never be done out of a knee-jerk reaction. Does the topic fit within the broader context of your public relations goals? If so, proceed with caution. But always think strategy first, media clippings second.

4. Remember, at the end of the day, you're dealing with people. This is the big one to remember, especially in the age of social media. No longer are businesses operating in a one-way communications environment. The public demands to be heard and they demand their voices prompt action. Businesses must respond by showcasing a stronger human side than they have in the past.

In the PR world, it's often not a question of whether a crisis will hit, but when. If we can avoid making more work for ourselves with "friendly fire," then I'm sure even Sun Tzu would agree that's half the battle.

Filed Under: public relations

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