Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain!

Remember in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends discovered that Oz the Great and Powerful wasn’t a great wizard after all? It’s one of many memorable scenes in the movie, and there’s a lesson here for the PR business, or, for that matter, any business at all. Watch this short, entertaining clip to jog your memory.

WizardBehindCurtainThe backstory, of course, is that Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion had visited the Wizard to ask him to grant their wishes. The Scarecrow wanted brains, the Tin Man wanted a heart, the Lion wanted courage, and Dorothy wanted to return home to Kansas with her little dog Toto. The Wizard appeared to each character in a different guise, and demanded that first they destroy the Wicked Witch of the West—who he was deathly afraid of—before he would grant their wishes. The Wizard probably thought the Wicked Witch would easily dispatch Dorothy and her friends, and that would be the end of these pesky supplicants. But if they did succeed in destroying the witch, well that would be a bonus, and it would buy him time to figure out how to maintain the illusion of his greatness. The Wizard’s plans were thwarted when Dorothy and her friends returned from destroying the witch, and Toto pulled aside the curtain showing the little humbug man operating the smoke and mirrors machinery.

What does this have to do with the PR business? Well, let me tell you another story from my experience as a vice president at a big PR firm. I was still new on the job, and a group of us were pitching our services to a potential client in Los Angeles. The client wanted help promoting an event to raise awareness about climate change. During the event—called “Earth Hour”—participants around the world would turn off the lights to help save the planet. Although the actual pollution reductions would be modest, it was a clever gimmick to raise awareness about the connection between energy use and climate change. At one point during the meeting, I was asked about my experience promoting similar events while working on staff at a large environmental group. My response was something to the effect that my former employer’s grassroots efforts were focused more on generating public comments to decision makers through online activism than through on-the-ground citizen action. Nonetheless, many of the promotional tools and principles were the same and could be applied to this potential client’s situation. Then I ticked off some examples of possible tactics. After the meeting, one of my colleagues pulled me aside. He was furious. He said I had broken one of the rules of the PR business: if you’ve done anything at least once before, then you’re entitled to call yourself an expert.

Now, I’m not saying I was the perfect salesman; I was still learning the job. But my colleague’s comment really stuck in my craw. Just because you’ve done something once, does not make you an expert. Yes, it means you have some experience, but I think it’s dishonest to oversell yourself. The reason I’m sharing this anecdote is because it was part of a pattern I saw while working for Big PR. More often than not, everything was smoke and mirrors. That was the way the company ran its business. But if you looked behind the curtain, there was a little humbug man manipulating the gears and levers to create an illusion about the firm’s abilities and expertise.

I happen to believe in a different kind of public relations. I believe that truth and transparency will always serve you well. As long as you’re creating a useful product or delivering a valuable service, all you have to do to sell it is to tell the honest truth. Yes, it’s hard work crafting an engaging story, identifying and getting the word out to a target audience, and creating buzz about a new endeavor. But the most successful stories are true stories, and your greatest assets are always trust and credibility.

For example, when I worked on the legislative advocacy campaign to pass California’s Clean Cars Law (AB 1493) in 2002, the auto and oil industries cranked up a deceptive campaign of lies and disinformation. They said requiring cleaner cars would force fewer choices upon consumers and make new cars too costly and unaffordable. This was the same tactic they used decades earlier to fight mandatory seat belts and catalytic converters. Guess what? As a result of these laws and regulations, today we have far more choices of cleaner, better, affordable cars in the marketplace—not just in California, but all around the country. The environmental groups and their allies in the cleantech industry told the truth. The Big Polluters lied. When Good Guys are honest, they earn the people’s trust. Don’t let cynics tell you otherwise—the truth will set you free, and, sooner or later, liars always will get caught.

If you need more convincing, consider the recent Volkswagen scandal. The German auto manufacturer installed special software in its cars to cheat on pollution emissions tests. Investigators discovered that millions of diesel autos manufactured by Volkswagen—including Beetles, Jettas, Passats and Audi A3s—have been emitting almost 40 times the allowed amounts of pollutants that contribute to smog and cause serious respiratory diseases. Not only did Volkswagen cheat, but according to the New York Times it used a deceptive PR campaign to promote its vehicles:

While Volkswagen cheated behind the scenes, it publicly espoused virtue. This, after all, is the company that used one of the largest advertising arenas in the world, the Super Bowl, to run a commercial showing its engineers sprouting angel’s wings.

When the truth came to light, the company’s stock value plummeted, its chief executive has stepped down, it faces billions of dollars in penalties, and its future is uncertain. It’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for the company to regain the credibility and trust that it earned in nearly 80 years of doing business.

As a communications consultant, here’s my pledge to you: I will never lie, cheat or oversell my services. You are free to peek behind the curtain. As a good faith gesture, you can watch me build this website. Right now, it’s pretty plain vanilla. Although I’m experienced at building websites—I’ve done it for a nonprofit organization, a government agency and an academic institution—I’m a content guy, not a computer whiz or graphic designer. When I built those websites, I had people on my team with expertise in the areas that weren’t my specialty. However, with this consulting business website, I’m doing all the work myself. This means I’m teaching myself about website hosting and how to use the WordPress content management system. I’m starting small and learning as I go. As I gain experience, I’ll add more bells and whistles to make the website more compelling—more visually attractive and with more dynamic multimedia content. I could have waited until I had the “perfect” website before unveiling it to the world; then I could have presented myself as a total Website Wizard. Instead, I’m inviting you to follow my progress. I will inevitably make mistakes along the way, and my various bumps and hiccups will be on public display.

Rest assured, however, if I build a website as part of a public relations effort for you or another client, I will deliver top-notch results. I will work with you to develop a strategic plan with a vision of how the website will help you meet your goals and objectives. I will leverage my skills and experience as a communications content expert and build a team of graphic designers, computer programmers and any other needed specialists. This is how I achieved success with other projects; it’s how I can do the same for you.

If you have a Big Idea, and you need help communicating it, if you share my passion for mission and mojo, honesty and integrity, then let’s talk about what we can accomplish together. And don’t forget, when you’re working with me, it’s okay to peek behind the curtain.

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