Public Relations Liability, Lawyers, Cults, and Kool Aid

CBS News recently reported that a restaurant in Indiana decided to pull billboards with a cult reference to “Kool-Aid” that reminded people of the Jonestown Massacre which left 900 dead. While I have no idea of whether this restaurant consulted with their public relations folks or their attorneys, this advertising campaign could have warranted a little more thought.

There’s something I call “corporate sibling rivalry.” It has to do with the supposed battled that rages between a company’s public relations staff and their lawyer. It goes like this: the public relations expert wants to get the best information out in the marketplace as soon as possible, something that is very important in a crisis communications situation. The attorneys don’t want anything going out without their approval, and in many cases will err on the side of caution to say nothing. The rivalry comes in because both the public relations people and the attorneys want to protect their clients.

There is a win/win for the lawyers and the public relations counselors that come by thinking of a couple of guiding principles:

  • Have the conversation before you have the conversation. It’s the responsibility of the public relations professional to know everyone who would be involved in public image decisions, long before those decisions are made. Setting up a protocol of how information will be processed is something to determine long before a crisis hits.
  • There’s more than one way to use innovation in communication. In a crowded media message marketplace, I appreciate that you need something clever to clear through the clutter. However, it reminds me of something I learned about communications in grade school. There are two ways to describe what McDonald’s sells: they sell either 100% beef hamburgers or ground up cows on a bun. Same message, but one creates a linguistic liability.  
  • Default to the lawyers. One thing that I’ve learned over the years, is that the attorney’s opinion trumps the public relations professional. This is especially true when litigation will come into play. While the public relations person should know the rules of the road with something like pre-trial publicity, it’s the lawyers who know what is distributed publicly that can come back to haunt the company years down the road when the company is in court and the media has moved on to the next big story.