The limits of good PR

Last week, the always on-point Kara Swisher encapsulated the thoughts of PR professionals everywhere in an article entitled: Dear Tech Bros: It’s not a PR problem at Uber (or Yahoo or any of it).

Swisher recalled three different conversations she has had with executives both inside and outside Uber in recent weeks, none of whom was willing to accept that leadership is responsible for the company’s problems, suggesting that either PR was responsible for the company’s public woes or it was the only solution.

One executive argued that all could be cured by hiring an ”outside crisis PR firm.” Another suggested a “no comment” policy was the best approach to allow things to “blow over.” And the third suggested that best thing was for Uber to scrap “PR-engineered public apologizing” and get back to just “being Uber again.”

It will come as no surprise that Swisher vehemently disagreed with all three.

Uber’s problems are the direct result of failing to prioritize human resources processes and accountability. In fact, it is arguable that Uber’s PR team did too good a job papering over the company’s cracks for too long. But when the tsunami of employee stories finally hit, no amount of PR could conceal a company culture in disarray.

And Uber is not alone. As Swisher notes, Yahoo didn’t fail because of a poorly executed PR strategy. Instead, the fundamental issues were a basic lack of innovation and mismanagement.

I was struck by Swisher’s article for a couple of reasons. First, because she was right in her assessment. Second, because the obliviousness of those quoted was breathtaking. Recommending that Uber return to a strategy of hyperaggressive rule-breaking isn’t just foolish, it’s reckless. The comments from Uber executives, in fact, represent a complete lack of understanding of the role of communication and PR.

The core mission of any communications strategy is to tell a company’s story. PR cannot invent meaningful innovation where there isn’t any. It can’t communicate a long-term business strategy for growth when such a strategy doesn’t exist. And it certainly can’t overcome poor leadership or resolve employee disputes. Any efforts to use PR to deflect attention from the fundamental shortcomings of leadership are doomed to fail. In the long run, a good reporter – and astute observers – will always cut through the hyperbole to find the facts.

And Uber is not alone. As Swisher notes, Yahoo didn’t fail because of a poorly executed PR strategy. Instead, the fundamental issues were a basic lack of innovation and mismanagement.

I was struck by Swisher’s article for a couple of reasons. First, because she was right in her assessment. Second, because the obliviousness of those quoted was breathtaking. Recommending that Uber return to a strategy of hyperaggressive rule-breaking isn’t just foolish, it’s reckless. The comments from Uber executives, in fact, represent a complete lack of understanding of the role of communication and PR.

The core mission of any communications strategy is to tell a company’s story. PR cannot invent meaningful innovation where there isn’t any. It can’t communicate a long-term business strategy for growth when such a strategy doesn’t exist. And it certainly can’t overcome poor leadership or resolve employee disputes. Any efforts to use PR to deflect attention from the fundamental shortcomings of leadership are doomed to fail. In the long run, a good reporter – and astute observers – will always cut through the hyperbole to find the facts.

In her article, Swisher puts it this way: “How did Facebook get over a series of dumb moves it made in its early days? It grew up. How did Apple deal with the controversies around its factory workers in China? It shifted its practices.”

Long gone are the days when Uber could successfully spin a “rich-frat-boy-meets-Vegas” story and use that story to obscure its fundamental shortcomings. There are no free PR passes at this point. I am a firm believer in the power of PR to tell stories, share a vision and help a brand reach its potential. In partnership with a strong leadership team, it is a powerful force.

But PR is not a panacea for a company’s internal failings, and it’s time for Uber to grow up. It must have the discipline to work with both employees and regulators if it wants to be a growth company that stays around for the long haul. And the company needs to demonstrate that it has a clear vision and business strategy to succeed. For Uber, what’s happening is indeed a crisis. Well before the dust settles, it is vital to take stock and understand why the crisis occurred in the first place.

For the record, PR can’t fix that.