Public Relations: From T-Shirts To Crises

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In the mail over the last week, public relations folks for separate companies each sent nifty T-shirts designed to bring attention to products or marketing campaigns.

One shirt sported the words, "Get Perpendicular," to tout a brand of hard drives. Another shirt asked, "Have You Done It Lately?" as it tried calling attention to a backup storage solution.

Please, keep the T-shirts coming. It's summer, and they are light and cool for the wearing. But if you're considering a double entendre to get attention for your product, it's been done. And it's being done.

Yes, PR types can be aggressive, enterprising and--occasionally--witty in trying to represent their clients. So why do these guys suddenly shut up when a lawyer walks into the room?

Consider this: Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a conviction against what remains of the Arthur Andersen consulting firm in a case stemming from its inability to head off the Enron scandals and collapse. Even though the high court rejected the conviction, the damage had already been done. Arthur Andersen is no more the consulting powerhouse it once was.

That led to this observation by Jonathan Bernstein, a "crisis" public-relations manager who writes a regular newsletter:

I believe that Arthur Andersen could have stayed in business, while legal matters proceeded, if its leadership had considered the court of public opinion to be as important as the courts of law.

Rather than waging an all-out public-relations war, Arthur Andersen bowed to its own lawyers, kept quiet and decided to fight federal charges in the Enron case in court. It lost, initially, and essentially was forced out of business before it could mount its successful appeal.

According to Bernstein, companies in crisis should combine legal and public-relations expertise and have the CEO--not the lawyers--make the final call about what to say or not to say in public. He wrote the following:

Too often, the default is 'do what our lawyers tell us to do.' That is fine as far as it goes, but attorneys are only trained to win in a court of law. The best attorneys realize that the company has to survive in order for a legal win to mean anything, and the battle for survival often takes place outside the courtroom.

In the case of Arthur Andersen, the lawyers won the battle, but only after the war had long been decided.

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