Blogging about work; my public relations travails

Yes, it’s a big no-no — provided you care about your job. And right now I don’t. I have really enjoyed my company, which has some great people. And I have a great boss. But when you are a PR manager for a company that is PR-ignorant (no, make that PR-hostile) the battle is entirely up hill.

A few days ago my entire department was summoned to an impromptu meeting where it was announced that a considerable number of people were about to be layed off. My jaw literally dropped. My company is making a major announcement that is inevitably going to get picked up by the media and they never talked to their PR person about it? WTF??

I went back to my desk and wrote emails to my supervisor and her own boss asking what the messages were in case the media called. My own supervisor, who I hold in very high regard, was away on vaction with no email. I called her cell phone and she told me to divert calls to the CFO and investor relations people. I immediately contacted them, and to my total shock, both were out of the office and unavailable.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with the role of the PR person. In short, it’s to be prepared with a strategy of communication, to make sure you are armed with messages and talking points before they are needed, and to tell your company’s story in the most positive light. Well, there’s a lot more to it, but those are the keys.

So step back with me: Here is a publicly traded, multi-billion-dollar company announcing staff layoffs….and their financial spokespeople are out of town! Not a single thought given to what the media might say, or who should answer their questions. When I heard the IR people were out, I knew I was sunk. I was on my own with nothing but my quick wits and silver tongue.

And then it happened, while I was at lunch. My cell phone rang and it was a reporter who heard the bad news and wanted to talk. I told him I needed half an hour to get him a spokesperson. I ran back to find that every single executive was out of town except our president, who’s relatively new. He was in a meeting with seven or eight high-level execs. We had never met (imagine, the company didn’t think they needed to introduce the PR manager to the company president). I held my breath and walked into his ofice and interrupted his meeting, telling him we needed to talk.

He was extremely understanding and he was utterly shocked to hear we didn’t have a process for planning in advance for announcements. Well, we do have a process that I wrote in my original PR plan for the company — but it was simply ignored. He helped me write a brief statement so I could understand the background, but we had only a few minutes. I was told to act as spokesperson and when I called the reporter, he asked a lot of tough questions. I had to give the best answers I could under the circumstances. (Usually you prepare a Q & A well in advance that anticipates all these questions and their best answers; my company won’t have any of that.)

So the article appears, and my CEO (not the president) gets bent out of shape because he didn’t like some of its mesages. But shit happens, especially when you have no plan and no support.

Remember, my supervisor’s supervisor never even answered my e-mail many hours earlier asking for help. So I was less than thrilled when she wrote an email last night chiding me for the “bad quote.” She couldn’t find the time to email when I was asking for urgent help, but after the fact it was no problem. She ended by saying, “Next time, follow the script, please.” To which I replied:

I had no script. I was on my own, and the reporter called. I tried to get [CFO]to talk but he was boarding a plane. The reporter did mangle my quote at the end but that’s not an excuse. I take total responsibility for all I do, and I hope everyone else does. I hope you told [CEO] I was on my own and stood up for me. I am very good when I know our talking points and messages. When left on my own without a clue and with zero support I do the best I can. You didn’t even respond to my email yesterday when I said I was concerned about the media calling. I tried to get us prepared, but no one responded. As Donald Rumsfeld said, ‘We went into war with the army we have.’ [CEO] says it was a bad quote; did he or you or anyone else help me craft a better one? How long did it take us to prepare for this announcement? Was it totally impossible for us to prepare for the media reaction? Could we have spent 10 minutes of preparation time to move from reactive mode to pro-active mode?

I have never worked in an environment where I was so detached from the decision makers and left to guess what our messages are. It is not satisfactory to me. I have won this company more coverage than it’s ever had in just a few short months, I articulated all of our solutions messages in the white papers I wrote, yet I am not consulted when we make a major announcement. That is called being set up to fail and it is not acceptable. If you want to lay me off, please let me know. I don’t want to be set up to fail you.

Look, for $X0,000 a year and with zero support, I have given you everything you could have dreamed of. Six approved case studies, our first News page on our Web site, five white papers that I volunteered to do that would have cost you $25,000, the annual report… All that, but no one trusts me enough to talk to me in advance and help me prepare talking points.

So please, either treat me with the respect I deserve at this point or let me go. I am used to working at the side of the decision makers, helping them with all they do, setting up appointments wherever they travel to. Here, I am ignored, and then when the s+it hits the fan I’m blamed. For $X0,000 a year, it’s really not worth it. And I don’t even get covered parking. With 23 years of media and journalism experience and all I won for [company name].

Thanks for listening and excuse my passion. It’s only because I care about what I do, I have a vision for this company and I have never let you down. Quite the contrary.

Warmest regards,

Richard

I cc’d it to the president, the CEO and my immediate suprvisor and sent it last night. I admit I’d had some wine with dinner before I received the “use the script” email that set me off. But I meant every word. It is a truly sublime feeling when you don’t care and have nothing to lose. Everytime I hear them saying the words, “You’re fired,” I hear another voice that says, “Taiwan.”

No one has said a word so far. I’m waiting here in limbo with a devil-may-care attitude. I just took them on their first press tour to New York and Boston, and it was an amazing success, and they promised to be more attentive to PR. So I’m worried they’ll try to get me to stay. Maybe I should just wear a sandwich billboard that says, “Please, lay me off now!”

As Drudge would say, developing….

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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The Discussion: 39 Comments

Wow. Good for you! This really seems like a no-lose situation, as far as you’re concerned.

June 30, 2005 @ 11:58 am | Comment

Richard,

My favorite Cult Rev slogan:

?????

Revolution is not a crime!

Chant down Babylon. Follow your heart.

June 30, 2005 @ 12:00 pm | Comment

Thanks for the support. I just wish this would get resolved already. Last night was quite intense; I was shaking after I sent the email. But I went to bed feeling quite wonderful.

To the second commenter: I know two Jeremys – I presume you’re the one in Beijing…?

June 30, 2005 @ 12:08 pm | Comment

You are in the best position possible – cause what’s the worst they can do? Fire you??

June 30, 2005 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

Because it is the LAW

I was taught that the state of individuals or private institutions making their own custom laws at whatever point satisfied their personal needs was called anarchy.
This is what you are suggesting and it is not right.

June 30, 2005 @ 1:15 pm | Comment

I like the way you got the msg across in cordial tones. I can sense the displeasure and bitter after taste but not the rude ranting so common in today’s “I don’t care what you think” world. Cheers Richard. You did good there.

June 30, 2005 @ 2:30 pm | Comment

Thanks Vandice; my heart was certainly in it, and is.

I’m amazed at the silence from the executives. The Big Shot Supervisor just sent me an email about another topic as though things were the same as always. I have to admit, the suspense is killing me – I was sure I’d have been called to the president’s office by now. That has me kind of bummed – the longer they wait, the more it indicates they want me to stay and are working out a plan. Otherwise, they’d have just let me go.

June 30, 2005 @ 3:18 pm | Comment

Sounds very similar to what my father is currently going through (albeit on a potentially far less satisfactory note). Once again I have to go now and navigate through these bloody roads to get to work when I have yet one more reason to desperately want to leave.
By the way, for the first time in about a year I was in a car during the day.Took 30 minutes to go down one street and turn left. Takes me 1.5 minutes by bike. Can’t think of a more appropriate metaphor we see everyday to illustrate the limits to China’s growth than that…

June 30, 2005 @ 4:12 pm | Comment

By the way, I liked the letter. I wouldn’t apologise for the passion you used; it’s would have been much worse in the end if you were left thinking “Maybe I should have done this…” Not only did you write what you had to from both a personal and professional standpoint, you threw their incompetence right back at them. Good luck, Richard!

June 30, 2005 @ 4:25 pm | Comment

Most people would never have the balls to write that kind of email. I sure wouldn’t. Good job Richard, good luck and we hope to be reading your posts from Taiwan any day now!

June 30, 2005 @ 4:59 pm | Comment

Richard,
It sounds like everyone was in the loop but yourself. That could hardly have been an accident. Is the phrase “hung out to dry” still in use? More to the point, it sounds like someone hung you out for the vultures.

June 30, 2005 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

Lirelou, it’s a very hierarchical company. There’s the elite senior management — CEO, CFO, CMO, president – and they all knew. (These are the ones who get covered parking so their cars don’t turn into mini-crematoria, hefty stock options, obscene salaries and limitless vacations.) None of us middle managers knew. (We’re the ones who do the work, get two weeks vacation and live paycheck to paycheck.) So yes, the senior managers definitely left me out to dry, but I don’t think it was intentional. As I said, our new president expressed dismay that I wasn’t told and apologized. He said it wold never happen again, and he’s damned right.

June 30, 2005 @ 6:09 pm | Comment

There is nothing wrong with your email, but I would have probably have had less self and more of an analysis in a best business practice, identifying significant problems, etc.

I detect a lot of envy there, what difference does it make to you how much they make, or much vacation they get, etc. The real issue any of us has is what do we do with what we have. I believe we have three main categories we can choose for our vocations: money, vocation itself, and location. We get to choose one. If it is money we want, find a way and a place that will meet those ends. If it is location, then go, then choose either either money or vocation that is suitable, and then the money or vocation that completes the set.

In other words, Richard, make up your mind, establish a plan of action, then execute it.

June 30, 2005 @ 6:31 pm | Comment

Oh, there is a LOT of envy, I admit it freely. I know how much those at the top earn (we are publicly traded) but that had nothing to do with this email; I accepted that a long time ago, and it’s how most corporations are (though this one is exceptionally ungenerous; to their credit, the new president its trying to improve this). I only mentioned the salaries and vacations to explain to Lirelou the two castes — those who know and those who don’t know.

Thanks for the career counseling; I am working on it, and this email was a major step in the direction I’ve chosen.

June 30, 2005 @ 6:42 pm | Comment

Man, I so, so sympathize.

It’s funny, I remember when I was still working in technology in Singapore, and our company grew big enough that it needed a PR manager. I was head of production at the time – ran all the project teams. I treated her so badly that I am ashamed if it to this day. Seriously–I had no idea what she was doing, wasn’t interested in helping her, and took every request from her in a grudging fashion that suggested how much I thought she was interfering with my “real” work.

Five years later, my how that worm has turned. From the other side of the fence, it is so clear how many companies think PR=marketing, and otherwise treat PR people like fire extinguishers. Break glass in case of emergency, ignore at all other times.

In my company we’re always claiming that it’s important for PR counsellors to sit “at the table” (ie. the boardroom table). It’s funny how seldom that happens. And yet, the emergencies come (and multinationals have big emergencies in China), and the glass is broken yet again.

As to your letter, don’t write yourself out of a job. Make sure you leave on your terms, not theirs. You’ll feel better in the end. I do think it was honest and passionate. The problem is that those “at the table” often respond poorly to honesty and passion (depressing state of affairs, isn’t it?). I agree with the first paragraph of JFS’ note, above.

But then, it still might have been worth saying that you are prepared to resign if the company doesn’t change the way management and PR work together.

Anyway, I can’t really fault your approach. I am interested in hearing how it all resolves.

And, Clarissa (I recall that was her name), if you’re out there somewhere, I am truly, truly sorry.

June 30, 2005 @ 6:59 pm | Comment

Thanks Will, and I know you are right about leaving as friends. I have had very good relations with these executives, when I get to see them. They did promote me and increase my salary. And I hopee to leave them on good terms and even to continue doing freelance work for them. But I wasn’t going to take the heat for the incompetency of others.

My boss (the one I like) called and left me a voicemail about half an hour ago asking me how I was and if I needed to talk to her about anything. She’s far away, on vacation, so she was obviously calling to see if she could straighten things out. That means the company wants me to stay. I meet with the new president tomorrow morning and will have an update around 10AM Mountain time.

Loved the fire extinguisher analogy!!

June 30, 2005 @ 7:14 pm | Comment

PR: If You Walk Like a Duck…

Want to know what many PR people deal with day to day? Been there, got the t-shirt. Read this post from Richard at Peiking Duck and either weep or get a good laugh. I did the latter. Big time. Don’t know if he got canned or not. I bet it’s a Fortune 50…

June 30, 2005 @ 9:00 pm | Comment

PR: If You Walk Like a Duck…

Want to know what many PR people deal with day to day? Been there, got the t-shirt. Read this post from Richard at Peiking Duck and either weep or get a good laugh. I did the latter. Big time. Don’t know if he got canned or not. I bet it’s a Fortune 50…

June 30, 2005 @ 9:00 pm | Comment

Richard, be careful not to get dooced!

Ellen

June 30, 2005 @ 9:31 pm | Comment

Woo-hoo! That must have felt pretty good. Especially since you can’t lose. “Let’s take this seriously or just forget it” is a pretty solid message, especially when you’re prepared to back it up.

But what if your mail gives them new respect for you, they give you more responsibility and a raise?! Uh-oh, dilemma!

July 1, 2005 @ 4:44 am | Comment

PR Miscellany – July 1, 2005

Another day, another month and happy Canada day!

July 1, 2005 @ 6:57 am | Comment

I thought the email was very well stated. But, I’m telling you man, if this sort of thing really gets your goat working in Taiwan will have the same sort of things. Trust me.

July 1, 2005 @ 7:24 am | Comment

Yeah, if you’re thinking about the paradise of living in Asia … go and read Gordon’s rant at the Horse … even got my blood boiling, and I’m living far far away.

July 1, 2005 @ 7:27 am | Comment

I worked in Hong Kong and even Beijing and never once hd a problem like this. I think the issue here is I am working for a huge major corporation where the people at the top are in their own building – we don’t even see them. So we are off their radar screen and they just forget. That can’t happen in a smaller company, although I am well familiar with office politics, which you’ll finds in any company with more than one person.

This incident would not be my sole reason for leaving the company, but it helped push me along, confirming the frustration is not worth it. My first job in PR had even more frustration, but I loved my work and stayed until the company got sold after three years.

July 1, 2005 @ 7:35 am | Comment

Alomost time for that meeting with the new president. Please let us know how it goes, we’re all thinking of you.

July 1, 2005 @ 9:47 am | Comment

UPDATE: I met with the president a few minutes ago and told him how I felt about the communication problem and how I am too often used as a “fire extinguisher” (yes, Will, I stole that from your comment above, thanks!). He was very sympathetic and said he understood how I felt. When I told him I felt it would be best if they’d lay me off, he said I needed to talk with my immediate supervisors about it.

I called my vacationing supervisor, who knew nothing of this entire episode, and she went a bit crazy, telling me to wait until next week when she comes back. She gave me the standard line of how valuable I am to the company and they need me, blah blah blah. Still developing….

July 1, 2005 @ 11:12 am | Comment

A very dear friend of mine in China wrote me the following email:

Richard, I did read your post about your work and relevant comments. Now I can really feel your complicated mood: being ignored and
working at a hierachical company … if I were you, I might quit. It is something I can not give in, especially when I become really experienced like you.

You might finish talking with your new president when you are reading this e-mail. I think you have made
your decision. When you said you were not happy with your work before, I thought you are just tired of
working in this field, I could not realized your situation in your company. Now I know why you are so
unhappy. I think you deserve a better position.

As you said, work will be work, everyone might hate their own jobs.I am still impressed with one of my
friends’ word: “it’s not a matter that I like or you like, it is a matter that we should, becasue it is business”. I think, for you, it is a matter that you
should … The choice is yours, and I believe you will make right decision. No matter what you choose, I will
support you anyhow.

There are a lot of wonderful people in China. I was very lucky to meet so many of them.

July 1, 2005 @ 12:08 pm | Comment

Came across your post linked from another blog. Sounds like you know in your gut that the time has come to move on. Remember these words of wisdom:

You may be employed by a company, but you work for yourself.

Good luck and hang in there!

July 1, 2005 @ 1:08 pm | Comment

Oh you’ll probably get either an offer of more money/access to the execs, or fired. If you get ‘more’ and stay, it’ll still be more tense, at least it was when I was in similar situations.

Good luck either way, bet yer boss on vacation is freaking! :-)

July 2, 2005 @ 1:02 pm | Comment

David, she utterly freaked. I apologized for ruining her vacation. But I made it clear to the president on Friday that I want out and I am hoping they will offer me a severance package next week. It’ll be hard for them to fire me without a package. They just gave me a great review and a raise, which makes it tough for them. I am counting on the president understanding that the smart thing to do would be to get rid of me in an amicable way.

Next week is a huge question mark. It could determine the course of my life. I can’t lie; I’m slightly hysterical about it.

July 2, 2005 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

Well, first, the quote and the article were not bad. You work with what you have, and you did a good job. Plus, if it’s the paper I think it is, Ed’s nice but, well, a curmodgeon whose best days are behind him. And, with a circulation as low as that papers, no one read the article.

And, with the other paper, I think it got a blurb – the other paper has more important things to do than write on the local economy. Like pull AP stories that misrepresent the local real estate market. Or, pull AP stories and be too lazy to localize them.

It’s an atypical company in our no-common-sense or economy state. I am not surprised to read this at all, in all truth, because local companies suck. That’s why I have been trying to get out, and been concentrating on interviews in other states – where PR is understood, and there is a mature market. When the paper mocks the local tech council because one person leaves – a tech council that has accomplished nothing real – it’s obvious that the city, papers and state don’t get what it takes to become more than tourism and real estate for an economic powerhouse.

If you do head back to the East – and I hope you thought it through – I am supposed to go to HK for vacation next year with a friend. Come to the mainland, and I’ll treat you to an amazing dinner.

July 3, 2005 @ 8:16 am | Comment

Oh, and Fred would have been proud of you, and supported you.

Just my guess.

July 3, 2005 @ 8:19 am | Comment

This is, quite simply, the most educational and impressive post about PR that I may have ever read in any blog.

Your thoughts and responses in comments tell the story so well. Seat at the table. How often have companies failed to realize the value? Too often.

And you have now shared so many of the realities in a great post. Thank you for it.

Whatever happens, any sane company will recognize you are now the thought leader.

Ya’ know, this (NDA’s aside) would make a fine novel. I’ve always wanted to see a good PR novel.

Best wishes. I won’t say, “Don’t worry. It will work out. You will succeed.” I won’t because you already have.

Take care.

Robert

July 3, 2005 @ 10:17 am | Comment

A Must Read Post :: The Peking Duck’s Blogging about work; my public relations travails

As I wrote to Richard in his blog, this post to……

July 3, 2005 @ 10:57 am | Comment

I don’t blame you for being hysterical over next (Ha, it’s already “this” in China) week. I can only wait and hope but I do have my fingers firmly crossed, for you and JC.

By the way, what a lovely post by Mr. French above, full of genuine warmth. What a great guy.

“I won’t say, “Don’t worry. It will work out. You will succeed.” I won’t because you already have.” – Robert French

There’s nothing more I can add.

July 3, 2005 @ 1:59 pm | Comment

I really appreciate all the support from Robert, Jeremy, Martyn et. al. Unfortunately it’s a holiday weekend and I won’t get any answers until Tuesday at the earliest.

Jeremy, you are quite right about the author of the newspaper article; no one’s ever accused him of being the sharpest tool in the shed. What got the CEO mad was he wanted the messages to be about e-enablement as opposed to e-commerce. All I can say to him is, Thanks for letting me know.

July 3, 2005 @ 2:48 pm | Comment

Asshat. I hate companies here.

July 3, 2005 @ 9:26 pm | Comment

Richard,

I am a former student of Robert French and through his blog I found this post. I must say I am truly amazed at your passion for public relations and the honesty you displayed with your superiors. It took a lot of guts and aplomb to inform those above you of the horrible faux pas they committed. Bravo.

I interned in the PR department of a rather large advertising agency one summer. The Public Relations director had some really progressive ideas to recruit more media coverage for our existing clients, as well as the company as a whole.

I spent all summer compiling information on various clients and the agency itself. Not long after I left to go back to school, the CEO informed my boss that they didn’t really find any value in PR, not even for their own company. They wanted my boss to stay at his current salary, office, etc, they just didn’t find much use in him performing additional duties outside of writing the occasional press release for the Web site.

He left soon after, vowing that he was not interested in a company that was unable see the value of PR. He did not, however, bother to suggest a different corporate attitude toward PR, which may have helped take this fairly successful company to another level.

Thank you so much for sharing your ordeal, I hope that you do not mind if those of us aspiring to be in your field use your situation as a first-hand case study.

Best Wishes,
Erica

July 3, 2005 @ 10:55 pm | Comment

Erica, thanks so much for the kind words, and please feel free to use this as a case study, depresseing though it would be. My nmoment of truth is tomorrow; I’ll update readers then.

July 4, 2005 @ 6:46 pm | Comment

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