Evil Totem: ethics, no trust

Let’s face it. PR people don’t always get the best rep. In fact, one of the most memorable experiences from my college years was when I told one gentleman, who will remain anonymous, that I wanted to work in public relations after graduating. He looked me right in the eye and replied, “Oh, so you want to be a BS artist?” The conversation kind of went downhill from there. PR agencies and PR consultants either lead glamorous lives according to some or very stressful ones according to others; but the consensus appears to be that the industry is plagued by unethical practices.

Does “Debranding” Help or Hurt?

I was reminded of that encounter earlier this week when I read an article in PR Daily that talked about strategies for sweeping a crisis under the rug. Using the example of a Thai Airways plane that skidded off the runway after its landing gear failed, the article noted that the first thing the company did was remove its logo from the plane. On its own, that’s not exactly what I would consider a heinous act. But, the article went on to say that more “debranding” should be carried out in situations like these — something I can’t get onboard with.

The rationale for debranding: the more prominent your company is, the more likely customers are to recognize you not only by your logo, but by the company colors, as well. The solution, as explained in the article:

If you want to do it right, you must remove all brand elements. It is much better to cover everything with white paint, so that the aircraft just looks unpainted, not just partially covered up… But too much haste in removing the logo always leads to negative coverage. Even when the brand is removed effectively, by doing it too quickly you give the impression that you’re hiding something. You encourage people to make before-and-after comparisons, which just make matters worse. Anyway, it doesn’t matter how fast you paint because today everyone has a camera in their pocket. Someone will capture a photo before the paint crew arrives.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I completely understand needing to do some damage control in times of crisis, but to me, the suggested route borders on conspiracy. To make matters worse, nowhere in the article was the word “apology” used. Translation: Don’t worry about apologizing to your disgruntled, and likely terrified or even injured, customers. Just focus on covering your tracks.

What About Transparency?

From a PR perspective, and also from a commonsense moral perspective, I could not disagree more with this suggested course of action. Our job as PR professionals is to build trust between our clients, their clients and the media by being truthful, insightful and transparent. It even explicitly states in the PRSA Member Code of Ethics that PR professionals should “avoid deceptive practices.”

In my opinion, the “debranding” approach is a far cry from the transparency that many modern PR organizations espouse. But what do you think? Am I being overly sensitive? Did I miss the point? As always, your feedback is much appreciated!


This post was first published by Mike Griffin on March Communications’ blog PR Nonsense.