Don’t kid yourself – Public Relations is all about conflict

By Jillian Mikolaizyk / October 19, 2023 / , ,

Offense. Defense. Struggle. Victory. Defeat. These are terms we think about when we think about About public relation crisis managementany conflict, no matter how high or low the stakes. But these things can also be at the heart of public relations (PR).

It’s not overstating things to say PR can be a battle. Just look at the headlines every day. PR fights seem to be everywhere, whether on the front lines of a strike or trying to explain the actions of a coach or university. PR is good, it’s bad. PR helps, it hurts. Hard to tell, right?

These challenges can involve everyone in the company, even innocent bystanders who don’t want to be involved, and often swirl around things like attacking people, defending decisions, trying to win the fight or at least capture the attention and support of those who may not be directly involved but can be both interested and impacted.

No, not everything in these cases is about a crisis that escalates into conflict. Certainly the life of a business owner is not constantly laced with life or death challenges. Still, there is much to learn from how these struggles are often portrayed when they arise.

That’s where PR comes in.

PR ideas and approaches can guide leaders to better understand when to fight, remain neutral or even when to surrender. Any one of these choices can be aggressive or passive. You have to decide.

So what should you do, especially when it seems you are heading for a crisis that could spiral out of control and be very public? There are many answers, but it seems to me that a few essential ideas will help design a framework for turning a potential PR battle into a victory for you and your company.

Have a battle plan

If you want to turn to public relations as a possible resource when it comes to taking on the “enemy” of bad publicity, or even a crisis, you’ll need a battle plan. This will help you be prepared at any given moment to not just react but to act in an honest and forthright manner.

This plan should include things like understanding who or what the foe is, whether internal within the organization or externally. No one wants to portray the media, for example, as a foe, but they are often the guides to the court of public opinion framed by external viewers and those who may or may not be neutral observers.

You also have to map out your resources, know your company’s own strengths and weaknesses, prepare accurate and relevant information and frame the issue in a way that allows your staff to be more than just pawns or grunts caught in a difficult struggle.

This isn’t propaganda – another war-like term – but a sincere explanation of your intent and position that will hopefully allow you to control or stabilize at least the situation or issue; maybe even move to a conclusion in a way that gives you a chance at winning the PR battle.

When to attack, stay quiet or given in

Besides knowing your own team and understanding the other side – those who see the crisis or conflict as a bad thing for you – it’s critical to actively pursue a strategy that either goes on the offensive, remains neutral or even givens in.

Most times, we can’t stand the thought of surrender. Sometimes, though, letting go of the idea that you have to win over people who may or may not be considered your opposition helps you maintain your position to fight another day. To put it differently, knowing when to fold is like being able to discern what is worth fighting for. So pick your battles.

I realize that going on the offensive sounds offensive. Attacking people seems like a new norm in our culture, and its forms can be downright dangerous. This doesn’t allow for a lot of give and take. Being with or against someone or something is a mentality that pervades our communities, our politics, our schools and businesses even.

With PR, “attacking” is about acting first, carving out your position, and getting your message out ahead of the attacks you think might be coming. There are lots of generalities in this discussion, but just imagine a crisis at your company headquarters. Someone has been killed in a machine accident. There’s immediate discussion of what happened, often the “who or what is to blame” game.

The media might step in with difficult questions. The family of the victim might hire an attorney. Your other staff may expose you or your company practices. All of these things aren’t necessarily “attacks,” but you can’t wait to find out. That’s why assuming ever day may bring a conflict helps you be prepared. It allows you to be ready, kind of like insurance. Have your statements ready. Be honest. Tell it from your perspective. Appoint a single spokesperson. Be an open book, in other words. While that may not sound like going on the offensive, it feels proactive and offers sincere effort to deal with what is a tragic event for your company.

Being defensive without being defensive

Sometimes, it makes sense to play defense. Often you don’t have a choice. You’re in a crisis and you react. You wait for police reports. You have to respond – and you should – to the local media. You have to figure out how the crisis might impact the future, and that might be something you just can’t visualize let alone predict.

You need to be confident and bold, but not sound like you’re being defensive or hiding something. Remember: being honest and sincere — even in defense — may lead to small victories.

Being on the defense is also about protecting your employees and your company. But this can’t be at the expense of truth or doing the right legal or moral thing.

We all know saying you’re sorry can be a difficult thing. And yet it’s such a simple concept that many would benefit from trying it. Being honest seems simple enough, but I get the challenge – in crisis, we sometimes say and do things in a hurry or without thinking, and that can lead to being inaccurate or even disingenuous.

Start with your own team, the ones you’ve being leading into battle all along. They deserve the truth, and only then can they be active fighters for your cause. They see and know what’s going on, so give them credit for both caring and wanting to help. Otherwise you may find enemies without your own camp.

A good example is with the media. You will have to face them. You can play defense bv preparing a statement, sticking to it and limiting your answers or contact.

Remember this, though: while no one wants to talk to the media, refusing to do so is not defensive, it’s offensive by most standards. It comes across as insincere, cowardly and even rude. That’s not being on the defense; it’s defensive, and you’re likely to offend or even be seen as attacking the wrong player in a public conflict.

Get help

Enlisting partners can also be a good tactic. This may seem like an offensive move, but often your partners can help you play defense. They can frame the crisis from a broader perspective even if they are not truly objective viewers. They can show those on the other side of an issue or crisis that you are trying to do the right thing.

You’ll need resources – your team, friends and family, perhaps a PR company. They’ll need the right information, even in defense but certainly in active offense, and they need to understand your ultimate goal.

With the media, you should avoid trying to enlist them even if they seem unobjective or siding with others you don’t agree with. They can be helpful for sure, just tread carefully and be prepared

So, what is the real goal?

While we haven’t said much about the “surrender” option, don’t forget that sometimes you have to give up. You have to ride the wave of pain or conflict and just do your best to carry on for another day. I know everyone is thinking of Kenny Rogers’ “know when to fold, know when to walk away.” That’s a good analog for surrender. The leader – you – lives on to play or do business for another day. You give in to a crisis or conflict that is unwinnable and begin instead to figure out how to rebuild, renew or recalibrate what is important to your business.

In the end, these ideas can only make sense if you have a goal in mind. When it comes to PR conflicts like one between a union and a corporate entity, understanding what you hope to achieve by using public relations will better guide you.

If you just want to be heard or get your side “out there,” that’s one thing. But your goal should never be to manipulate public opinion. Instead, your goal should be to explain your position or situation in such a way that people will at least give you a fair shake.

Maybe, in the end, you just want it to go away. While that is a goal, maybe one of defeat and surrender, it is still based on an objective.

So preparing a battle plan is a good starting place. Just make sure it’s based on a reasonable goal. Only then can you use PR if you have to be in conflict over some tragic event, some painful change to your company or any of another hundred possible challenges.