Jean Nero: Oil spill fiasco has damaged public relations profession

Jean Nero

The damage that resulted from the British Petroleum oil spill is beyond tally in many terms — lives lost, family earnings ruined and destruction of nature’s gifts that will take a century to correct. I’m no expert to report on that, but there’s one damage no one has spoken of, and in that I am knowledgeable, up close and personal.

The damage I speak of is what BP has done to the reputation of the public relations profession. Yes, it is a good, reputable profession, practiced my many good and ethical people and companies, despite bad jokes on late night television.

I spent 54 of my 81 years doing it. I began my writing career in a newspaper, then years later moved into doing public relations in a worldwide corporation. From there I went to an ad agency to handle public relations for major clients. The P.R. ranged from industrial companies to local shops, cultural and social services.

The best definition for public relations came from Jack Fisher in 1958 when his son asked, “What does Miss Nero do?” Jack answered, “She makes friends for her company.”

Not a lie

Contrary to current buzz, public relations is not lying about the truth, but explaining what happened to the community — honestly and in immediate time. My jobs involved several unforgettable crises, from the day we handled media calls asking why the board elected to remove the corporate CEO, to a major embezzlement fiasco.

The best lesson, when I worked for the Catholic Church, came the day we learned an employee had embezzled thousands from a Catholic school. At a meeting, top men advised we not make it public because it would break the public’s trust.

I’ll never forget my boss, the bishop’s answer: “Gentlemen, this is public now. We will admit the problem openly and work to solve it. Jean, how do we release this?” Me: “Press conference tomorrow morning.” We did that. Then they used cash reserves to replace the stolen funds. Result: The community understood this was the work of a couple people and not the institution. (Would that the Vatican had learned this lesson 30 years ago.)

There are thousands of honest, professional people working hard in “good public relations” for companies and institutions. There’s a national organization, the PRSA, that holds them to a high standard. But, as in all professions — including law, medicine, accounting, education, news and even religious life — there are a small number of misguided rascals who throw a black cloud over the good ones.

Bad judgment

What happened at BP was a judgment in operations that met with an accident that created a tragedy.

The “incident” might have been understood and accepted by the public, which was even willing to help repair the damage. But to cover it up with wrong information, (“only a small amount of oil”), meaningless words, to ignore requests for information (as requested by CNN), to be late in sending $2,000 checks promised to fishermen while paying $50 million for a meaningless TV spot; this not only destroys any public trust in the company, it defiles the good work of ethical P.R. people.

BP and others like them would do well to remember that only after Peter admitted and owned up to his betrayal and denial of Christ, did his Boss forgive him and put him in charge of the operation.

Jean Nero writes for The Reository in Canton, Ohio.