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Why is it important for PR people to stay on message?

A jackhammer consistency in messaging ensures brand consistency -- and protects against media bloopers and backlash.

Traditionally, PR people have been trained -- and have taught their clients or employers -- to be careful about what they say to the media. "Controlling the message" has been a central tenet of the public relations business. This approach ensures a jackhammer consistency in public statements and protects against media bloopers. But it is also the single biggest complaint that journos have against flacks.

Like the cop who thinks a suspect must be guilty because he's hired a lawyer, many journalists wonder, "Why does a company even need a PR person if it has nothing to hide?" And of the PR person, the journo asks, "Why can't you just be candid and spontaneous, and not be so guarded in what you say to me?"

It's a nice thought; but is that really what journalists want?

Some years back, Jim Louderback, then editor in chief of PC Magazine, blogged about a comment made by Steve Rubel, the prominent blogger for Edelman PR. Rubel had tweeted that his free subscription to PC Magazine "goes in the trash."

Louderback's response to this candid, spontaneous remark was less than forgiving.

Should I instruct the staff to avoid covering Edelman's clients? Ignore their requests for meetings, reviews and news stories? Blacklist the "Edelman.com" email domain in our exchange servers, effectively turning their requests into spam? If we're not relevant to Edelman's employees, then how could we be relevant to their clients?

He concluded that "in the future, if I'm on the fence, I'll probably be somewhat less inclined to take a meeting with one of Edelman's clients."

Louderback's comments are flawed logically. Why assume that if one Edelman employee doesn't read PC Magazine, others don't, either? The truth is, Louderback was simply offended by Rubel's offhand jab -- and, as payback, threatened to use his organizational power as a cudgel against Rubel's employer and clients.

That's a real argument in favor of honesty, isn't it?

As you would expect, Rubel quickly assumed the position and apologized, explaining that he only meant to say that he reads the online version of PC Magazine instead. Is that the truth? It doesn't matter, does it? It was the response demanded by Louderback, if Rubel and Edelman knew what was good for them.

In other words, be careful what you say in the media, guys. Watch your language and control your messages, or pay the price.

One final point. Even if you believe that Louderback is justified in wielding his power in this way, does this best serve his readers? Essentially, the editor is saying that he'll decide what his staff writes about, and what his magazine publishes, based on the standing of his personal relationship with a particular PR person or agency.

Hmmm. Shouldn't Louderback be pursuing the best story ideas that come his way -- without prejudice, no matter the source? Candidly, yes.

- Scott Baradell