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Attacks on corporate speech may make corporate communicators more valuable (originally published in Public Relations Tactics, November 2003)

The effort to squelch corporate speech may be just beginning.

 

We’re all too familiar with the Kasky case, which claimed Nike’s allegedly false statements about labor practices harmed consumers. Then in July, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit against YUM Brands alleging its KFC unit is lying when it says suppliers raise and slaughter chickens humanely. Like Kasky, PETA sued under California's Business & Professions Code, which prohibits “unlawful, unfair or fraudulent” business acts.

 

Memo to corporate communicators: this strategy is not going away. Nike’s decision to settle the Kasky case on September 12 actually may make activists bolder as they seek to gain the upper hand for their causes.

 

While the consequences of these attacks on corporate speech may be serious, they may not be as dire as some of my esteemed colleagues believe. To suggest that any court case would silence corporations isn’t giving PR practitioners enough credit for being problem-solvers.

 

PR practitioners should accept this as a challenge that requires a new perspective and new approach. It may seem counterintuitive, but these attacks on corporate speech might make us better at our profession and more valuable to the leaders who depend on our guidance.

 

Much of what we do as PR representatives is aimed at establishing and strengthening ties between the organizations we represent and various third parties. Why? Third-party voices are more credible. That’s why public relations has greater impact than advertising.

 

Those pulling their hair out about the prospect that corporations may be in jeopardy of losing First Amendment protection may be forgetting this important point. The strongest and most persuasive corporate communications do not come from the organization itself. They come instead from those who are most trusted by the audience being reached.

 

Who is more trusted on issues related to auto safety, the spokesperson for General Motors or the association representing police officers who respond to crashes? Who is more trusted on issues related to fatty foods, the CEO of a packaged goods company or a nutritionist? Who is more trusted if an industrial facility has an environmental issue, the facility’s neighbors and environmental advocates, or the plant manager or corporate CEO?

 

Corporate spokespeople are sometimes not trusted. Your audience is likely to assume that the company has self-interest and, therefore, has perceived motivation to either mislead or embellish.

 

When I served on a team helping Intel secure tax incentives totaling nearly a quarter billion dollars, we informed and mobilized the group that would be most affected if Intel didn’t get the tax break: small businesses near Intel’s facilities. When we sought to explain that clear-cutting and reforesting portions of a forest protected the health of the larger ecosystem, we engaged foresters – those who devoted their careers to caring for the woodlands.

 

The corporations stuck to the facts and kept their opinions to themselves.

 

However, corporate communicators feel a responsibility to communicate their organization’s point of view, organizing whistle stop tours for their CEOs and filling their Web sites with hyperbole. Often, the rationale is that failure to do so would reflect negatively on their organizations. Silence equals guilt.

 

While silence coming from a corporation doesn’t move the organization any closer to a mutual understanding with its publics, that’s only part of the equation. The other and more important part is what third parties have to say. Everyone knows what the company is going to say. What your publics really want to hear is what experts and those most affected have to say. You need them to be supportive.

 

Therefore, corporate communicators should put aside the CEO’s talking points for a moment and make it their highest priority to keep these influencers informed and encourage them to speak out as necessary.

 

Doing this is difficult enough today without constraints on corporate speech. If one of these advocate lawsuits finally succeeds, winning the support of third parties will depend almost entirely on the cumulative effect of positive corporate actions that build community goodwill plus solid data that can be independently sourced and verified.

 

This will take commitment on the part of corporations to do the right thing, and finesse on the part of communicators to earn the support of a robust network of independent third parties and keep them on message without being able to express to them what the message is.

 

Impossible? No way.

 

I hope the courts continue to protect corporate speech so our companies and clients continue to enjoy the protections of the First Amendment. However, any constraints on corporate speech will make the function of corporate communications significantly more valuable rather than obsolete.

 

Dan Keeney, APR, is president of DPK Public Relations, a Houston-based firm specializing in issues management and marketing communications (www.keeneypr.com) and is the president-elect of PRSA’s Houston Chapter. You can e-mail him at dan@keeneypr.com.

Dan Keeney
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Author: Dan Keeney
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