Law vs PR: is there an arena or a court of public opinion

I have been thinking about what it means to manage a reputation or deploy a communications strategy. So often, public relations professionals will start with a strategic vision for a brand, public figure or idea and then quickly be pulled into the vortex of tactical responses as context and circumstances overwhelm strategy.

Why does this happen?

Let’s think for a moment about what communications or reputation managers are trying to do. In modelling and shaping the reputation and relations of an organization, you’re trying to create a mental representation of your organization’s reputation in the minds of the people paying attention. In a perfect world, you would have a telepathic link to your publics and there would be no noise. You could communicate directly and earnestly with them the special mission, vision and values or your organization. Or you could tell the story of your product of service.

Unfortunately, we live in a noisy world. There are many voices to contend with: competitors who are trying to establish their reputations, a current affairs media serving up anecdotes 24/7 and, sadly, those who may wish to spread falsehoods, rumour or innuendo about your organization and your brand.  How do you deal with this?

I like to look to the legal profession for inspiration, or at least a foil, when thinking through public relations or reputation management puzzles. But is law an apt comparator? Lawyers work in the court of law and use the tools of effective communication: storytelling, evidence, research, and others. However, they work in a constrained court room environment, in a highly formal and ritualized procedure: there is always a verdict, decided by a judge or jurors. There is always a judge to monitor and police the line of argumentation. There is always the law and precedent to be interpreted and referred to.

In public relations and communications management, there is no judge to monitor the correctness of the proceedings. There is no law except copyright, libel and defamation, hate speech, etc. There is no jury and, most importantly, there is no defined end-point: no verdict. The challenge for professional communicators is that the struggle to manage reputation is on-going, goal posts are always shifting and perceptions can be moved by pure externalities. Therefore, the process of managing relationships and reputations to build trust, credibility and confidence is actually a much more complicated and challenging puzzle than cleverly arguing within a court of law. In fact, it is more akin to competing in an arena of ever-chaging circumstances,  like playing a multiplayer online video game or trying to competing for popularity and attention in a social club.

This means that having a good general education, subject matter expertise and belief in the product, person, idea or service you are representing is key. However, even those assets will not make you a strategic communicator or reputation manager.

Stay tuned for thoughts on what effective strategy might mean in the arena of public opinion.


Startups need strategic public relations

Building and managing relationships strategically is at the core of a business startup.

When you have an idea for a new product or service, the first thing you do is build the  relationships you need to nurture the idea.  You find people you trust: mentors, partners, financiers, potential founding clients, gauging carefully whether they will have your mutual best interests in mind. Then, as you pitch the idea to person after person, you build a web of images in the imagination of the people you’re talking to.

You have to think very strategically about how you communicate your idea, so that it is easy for the person to whom you are explaining it to communicate it to their associates, and so on. After your company is rolling and you have your first set of clients, then expansion, financing and even valuation will depend an awful lot on your reputation. However, your reputation resides in your actions (note: remember that communication is action – every sentence you utter is a speech act!) and how they are perceived as an ensemble in the imaginations of others.

Think of how startups like Square, Twitter and Nest, among many others, went from idea to success story: effective relationships with the public, with consumers and with stakeholders created the trust necessary for success.

Building this web of relationships right is at the heart of strategic reputation management for startups. Getting this wrong will lead to personal discouragement, wary clients and financiers, and, perhaps, even a lower eventual valuation.

Moral of the story: strategic public relations management is at the heart of building a startup.

McMaster-Syracuse MCM February Residency: Record Cohort and 7 Capstone Defenses

Another successful residency of the McMaster-Syracuse MCM program drew to a close on Thursday afternoon. We had a wonderful time sharing ideas, debating the latest industry challenges and opportunities and simply building friendships and professional collaborations.

This residency saw three key events:

  • Seven students successfully defended their capstone research projects. The capstone project is the culminating event in the MCM. Most of the successful students left on Sunday for a well-deserved “new MCM alumni trip” to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico.
  • Terry O’Reilly, founding partner, Pirate Radio, a major advertising firm, and creator and host of two successful CBC radio shows – The Age of Persuasion and Under the Influence – gave an insightful and engaging speech at the Saturday MCM Gala dinner that is held at the start of every residency.
  • John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada, a major public relations firm, presented the lunchtime keynote on the findings of the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust levels in different sectors and countries globally.

This residency also saw the record-setting first-year cohort of 23 new MCM students finish their first term and head confidently into their second term of six. Now they are old pros and full of excitement at the positive difference that the MCM is making for them by boosting their professional careers and enriching their personal lives.

To ‘cap it all off’ our graduating class offered a wealth of new insight and research directly applicable to practice, and continuing in the MCM tradition of leadership. The following abstracts showcase the talent and innovation, of another successful round of graduate capstone presentations.

From Enrolment to Alumni: Relationship Marketing and Measurement of University-Student Relations (Katherine Blanchard, Supervisor: Dr. Alex Sévigny)

A study that included 17 U.S. and Canadian universities, looked at the application of relationship management theory and relationship marketing to University-student relationship. Examining key components of relationship management, and relationship marketing to develop best practices for university-student relations. The research developed a comprehensive view of tactic and strategy for community building and adding value to the student experience.

Natural or Misleading: A content analysis of media coverage and consumer comments on product labeling and impact on reputation and the bottom-line. (Rosa Damonte, Supervisor: Dr. Terry Flynn)

​The prominence of media attention to a particular product is something that marketing departments strive to achieve when introducing a new product to market. Whereas conventional wisdom suggests that any publicity is good publicity, does the media cross the line when they are aiming to persuade in some way? As in this case study, agenda setting by reporters and editors can influence the public’s perception of companies through their selection and display of the news. This case study explores consumers’ reactions to the news coverage of a major food producer’s product line that were reported extensively in major newspapers and television networks in order to determine the impact the coverage had on the company’s reputation and bottom line.

Best Practices for Media Relations in a Shifting World (Susan M. Emigh, Supervisor: Dr. Philip Savage)

Public relations practitioners are key in media relations and as the variety of media sources and digital media continues to evolve, the role is becoming more complex. Through surveying 18 influential players in politics, journalism and public relations, it was found that traditional media sources are no longer the sole-gatekeepers of “agenda setting” but have maintained most of their viewership and authority in influencing public policy issues. Although the fundamentals are maintained, additional understanding of new media streams is needed as they continue to gain credibility.

Exploring the Relationship Between Personal Experience, Word of Mouth and a Community Hospital’s Reputation, (Anne Marie Males, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

Looking at the importance of corporate reputation building and reputation management in the context of community hospitals. The importance of reputation is recognized by hospital administrators, and this study illustrates that standard models of corporate reputation do have direct application to the community hospital setting. Personal experience and word of mouth, and in particular the appeal to emotion, came out as prominent influence in patient evaluations of treatment. The results suggested that “feeling cared about” and a positive experience positively influenced how patients and families evaluated outcomes of treatment. Good experiences in hospital translated into a positive hospital experience, even when clinical outcomes where poor.

Thought Leadership in Canadian Professional Service Firms (Wendy McLean-Cobban, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

A new reputation based economy and increasing value of intellectual capitol create the opportunity for Canadian service firms to gain a competitive advantage through Thought Leadership. Becoming ‘leaders in the field’ is an important goal and strategy in reputation management for professional firms. There is an opportunity for implementation of long-term strategies that will position the leaders in those firms as experts on the topics and industries most relevant to their existing and potential client base. This study examined the need for a holistic approach and mechanisms for tracking reputation and thought leadership strategy.

The New Lobbyist Rolodex: PR, (Jennifer Tomlinson, Supervisor: Prof. Michael Meath)

An in-depth inquiry on lobbying in Canada through a communications management and public relations perspective. The findings indicated that PR and Communications intersect in the practice of Lobbying, with “soft lines” of separation between them. Social media is breaking down the traditional singular networks of power in government relations, increasing the need for public relations and communications strategy to play a more strategic role in lobbying.

Reputation and Perception of Value: Online vs. Traditional Degrees (Amber Wallace, Supervisor: Prof. David Scholz)

Online education is becoming increasingly more popular, with the rise of online universities and the increasing number of traditional “bricks-and-mortar” post-secondary institutions offering online courses. It found that educational programs based solely online are poorly perceived, lacking institutional reputation. Established classroom based institutions offering online education benefited from a “halo-effect” based on their established relationship. The study found that the executives, administrators and hiring managers expressed concern for the “un-tested” nature of online learning. That is, that online education programs are a relatively new development and the graduates looking to enter the workforce don’t have the long-standing reputation of classroom based programs and established universities.

Dr. Al Seaman teaching MCM students about how financial market trading works in our McMaster Trading Floor Simulator.
Dr. Al Seaman teaching MCM students about how financial market trading works in our McMaster Trading Floor Simulator. (photo: Sarah Parent)
A candid moment during the MCM Saturday Gala Dinner.
A candid moment during the MCM Saturday Gala Dinner. (photo: Sarah Parent)


Terry O'Reilly in conversation with MCM Exec. Director, Alex Sévigny.
Terry O’Reilly in conversation with Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director. (photo: Sarah Parent)
John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada presenting the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer.
John Clinton, president, Edelman Canada presenting the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer. (Photo: Sarah Parent)
Students who completed their capstones successfully.
Happy moment, post-capstone defense! (Photo: Sarah Parent)
Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director, giving a capstone briefing for 2nd year students.
Alex Sévigny, MCM Executive Director, giving a capstone briefing for 2nd year students. (photo: Sarah Parent)