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Public Relations (PR): Saving Reputations and Staving Off Disaster


stress at work. crisis management. man with hands covering his face, and two people talking in the background (a woman and a man).

Public Relations (PR).


From its humble beginnings to its place at the modern corporate table, public relations (PR) has carved out a fascinating and indispensable role in how organisations navigate the world. Let's understand the importance of having a comms pro on your side, and some classic British case studies that showcase the power of PR in a crisis.


The Early Days: Smoke and Mirrors?

PR's roots stretch back centuries, but it really gained traction in the 19th century with figures like P.T. Barnum - yes, that Barnum – who mastered hype and spectacle. However, early PR often had a whiff of manipulation about it. The emphasis was on publicity, sometimes with little regard for the truth. Think less 'press release' and more 'paid-for puffery'.


Reputation is Everything

Then along came the likes of Edward Bernays in the early 20th century, often called the "father of PR". Bernays was all about shaping public opinion and building long-term relationships. It was a shift from mere stunts to calculated strategy. Reputation became the name of the game, and PR emerged as the art of crafting a compelling narrative that aligned with an organisation's values (or at least, what they wanted people to think were their values).


Why PR is Not a Nice-to-Have

In today's hyper-connected world, reputation can make or break a company. Here's where PR shines:


  • Trusted voice: PR professionals are your megaphone to the public, shaping the way your organisation is perceived.

  • Crisis control: When disaster strikes, a swift and considered comms strategy can mean the difference between a minor blip and a full-blown reputational meltdown.

  • Stakeholder engagement: PR is all about building relationships. It's about managing comms with customers, employees, shareholders, media... you get the picture. No company is an island.

From Bad to Worse: UK Crisis PR

Let's not forget some infamous cases right on our doorstep:


  • BP Oil Spill: While the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster was a logistical nightmare, BP's initial response was widely seen as tone-deaf. PR 101: Empathy goes a long way.

  • Tesco Horsemeat Scandal (2013): While the horsemeat crisis was a complex supply chain issue, Tesco's initial lack of transparency fuelled public outrage. PR 101: Honesty is always the best policy.

  • Sports Direct Working Conditions (2016): Whilst tackling logistical challenges of large-scale operations is difficult, Sports Direct's initial silence on poor working conditions severely tarnished their public image. PR 101: Never ignore claims that harm your brand's values.

  • Cambridge Analytica Scandal (2018): While the misuse of Facebook data raised complex questions about data ethics, Cambridge Analytica's lack of transparency turned public concern into a full-blown reputational firestorm. PR 101: Own your mistakes, however complex the issue.

  • More Recently... Think P&O Ferries' sudden staff sackings in 2022. A clear internal communications strategy (and some basic human decency) would have softened the public blowback.


PR Used Well

How about some good examples of when PR has been used well:


  • KFC Chicken Shortage (2018): When a logistics mix-up led to a nationwide KFC chicken shortage, the brand's cheeky "FCK" apology ad became a viral sensation. They turned a potential disaster into a PR win with self-deprecating humour and transparency. PR 101: Own your mistakes, but do it with personality.

  • Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll Launch (2019): Initially mocked by some (including Piers Morgan), Greggs' vegan sausage roll became a runaway success thanks to a savvy social media strategy. They embraced the controversy, playfully engaging with critics and ultimately highlighting their inclusive offerings. PR 101: Don't be afraid of a little friendly online sparring.

  • Innocent Drinks & Age UK (Ongoing):  Innocent Drinks' long-standing "Big Knit" campaign donates a portion of proceeds to Age UK, helping combat elderly loneliness. This positive partnership showcases how brands can leverage PR for both social good and brand affinity. PR 101: Align your values with actions for an authentic, impactful campaign.

  • Dove "Real Beauty" Campaign (2004 - present):  While Dove's campaign celebrating diverse representations of beauty has had its ups and downs, it was ground-breaking in challenging industry norms. It highlights the power of consistent messaging and addressing real consumer concerns. PR 101: Boldness can pay off, but be prepared for long-term scrutiny.

PR: Part of the Business DNA

These examples show that crises come in all shapes and sizes. Having a trusted PR voice, whether in-house or through a reputable agency, is an investment well worth making. Skilled communicators navigate complex situations, mitigate reputational damage, and help rebuild trust when things go sideways. Proactive PR isn't just about spinning a good story, it's about protecting the hard-earned reputation that your business relies on.

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