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Putting the passion back into PR

Opinion

In the controlled world of modern PR, is there a role for passion or even anger? Michelle Prak makes a case for wearing your heart on your sleeve.

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Where does emotion feature in a corporate crisis?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself recently, following Unley Council’s parking fees stoush with the Transport Department and reactions to food writer John Lethlean’s review of the Hill of Grace restaurant.

PR lore would have us ‘keep calm and carry on’ but sometimes emotion is appropriate and valuable. After all, it’s real.

Unley Mayor Lachlan Clyne and Transport Minister Stephen Mullighan were at forceful odds with each other on 891 ABC’s breakfast program last week. They recounted quite different stories about the council’s move to charge parking fees near a tram stop. Mayor Clyne sounded outraged and exasperated. He spoke loudly. There was no doubting the frustration in his voice. He and the Minister regularly spoke over the top of each other (so much so, that 891’s Ali Clarke later remarked “I feel like it feels to be a kid watching Mum and Dad fight”).

This was quite a contrast to the mild voices we’re used to. Our media is usually filled with spokespeople who speak in controlled, measured key phrases. It seems nothing can rattle them. They don’t raise their voices and they certainly don’t sound like they’re about to slam doors or tear up their briefing papers.

So, are loud voices a bad thing? Not necessarily.

Does emotion have a place in PR and issues management? Sometimes.

Emotion and passion can convey a point of view more swiftly and unequivocally than any thrice-drafted key message. Loud voices certainly make us sit up and pay attention, provided they don’t become the white noise of a Jerry Springer Show.

Emotion and passion can also garner respect.

In responding to Lethlean’s nil-star review, the restaurant Hill of Grace had many options available to it. One can imagine that emotions ran high behind-the-scenes – but how to respond publicly? Adelaide Oval Stadium Management Authority CEO Andrew Daniels sounded calm but forthright in interviews I heard. There was no quivering anger – and indeed in this case, how would that fly? It can be a fruitless exercise to become emotional over a review, casting you as thin-skinned and immature (ping Lawrence Mooney).

What the two stories have in common is this: the staff.

In both cases, the employees involved may have been hurt, confused, shocked and angry.

Mayor Clyne was essentially defending Unley Council staff, the processes they use and their capabilities. Minister Mullighan was likewise defending the capabilities and professionalism of the people working in his department.

Andrew Daniels was speaking on behalf of restaurant staff that I imagine were quite wounded and shell-shocked by a review that couldn’t even give them half a star for showing up.

In PR, your audiences are many.

They are not always the public, your customers or ratepayers. They are not always the media.

Often, the employees are the most important audience. They listen to everything you say, they trust that you will fly the flag for them, and the tone set and messages shared by a spokesperson can dictate their next steps. Let them down, and they let you know it – by grumbling around the watercooler, contradicting your statements in public, even eventual resignation.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve sends a candid message during media interviews – and makes a clear statement to those tuned in via the staff kitchen.

Michelle Prak is an Adelaide public relations consultant and President of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, SA.

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