Beware of Finger Pointing Toward PR Counsel

The best podcasts aren’t just a conversation between a host and guest. They involve you, the listener, too, by really getting you thinking.

If you work in news, PR or politics, this one will do just that. It’s CNN’s Brian Stelter talking with Steve Schmidt, the former John McCain campaign strategist who has gone public in recent days with information he says he has kept private for 14 years. Part of their conversation focused on Schmidt’s assertion that there’s a media bias that leaves politicians off the hook for their decisions and places blame on “advisors.” His case in point was McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, which Schmidt says was ultimately McCain’s.

Based on experience, that’s not a media bias. That’s a public bias. It’s hard to say where it comes from, but we hear seemingly every time a company is in the news for what’s perceived as a bad decision. Yes, it’s flattering for clients, journalists and friends to say “They should hire Tanner Friedman.” But that’s a reflection of the public assumption that executives or politicians themselves are somehow blindly led to decisions by listening to advice without any of their own opinions clouding the situation. That’s simply false.

We don’t represent politicians, but there is plenty of historical evidence to show that advice in their ears only goes so far. We do represent business executives and leaders of other kinds and can testify first-hand, with recent examples, that their bad calls often occur after ignoring good, sound advice. There’s just no convincing obstinate executives to, for example, get their differently-focused accountants, lawyers and own egos out of their heads and listen to the voice of actual, relevant experience. Sometimes, it just comes with the territory and, consequently, bad decisions unnecessarily harm reputations and careers.

Executives who will take into account multiple perspectives before making a decision, and PR counsel open to adjusting advice to reality, rather than textbook scenarios, can have success even under the most challenging of circumstances. That’s because leadership sets the tone and paves the way. That also tends to be the most common, at least in our experience. And yes, we’ve seen bad advice lead clients astray. Of course, that does happen too.

It’s easy to point the finger at often anonymous consultants, especially in politics where so many want to believe in the man or woman in front. But, those who have worked behind the scenes can tell you it’s often much more complicated than that and, ultimately, the credit or blame should rest with the decision-maker who accepts or rejects any piece of advice.