The Best PR Can’t Replace Real Leadership

June 28 2021

At its core, PR is all about reputation management with stakeholders. People and brands rightly expect PR professionals to help them connect with important stakeholders, build meaningful relationships and effectively communicate the right messages to them. 

However, many make the mistake that PR can help them solve a real leadership and business problem especially when it comes to a crisis. In fact, many think communication can substitute leadership.

The reality is, while PR can mitigate communication-based problems, it will never, ever be able to solve fundamental organizational and brand issues. It would be like taking pain killers without diagnosing and addressing the root cause of the medical condition. Resolving a problem or crisis requires real leadership and this often involves making tough decisions and most importantly, taking the necessary actions. 

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Indeed, no amount of PR, no matter how great, can build on what isn’t really there in the first place. Embarking on a PR exercise to “put a positive spin” on things will only make things worse if brands and organizations are not already walking the talk. It is just a matter of time when “spin” will come back and haunt the brand or organization. 

Jumping on the bandwagon

For example, many organizations are eager to jump on the green and sustainable bandwagon to showcase their “purpose-driven” brand story. But how many actually mean it? A study in the UK by The Opinium Research found that 60% of communication professionals believe clients are too eager to jump on the bandwagon talking about the climate crisis but often don’t take meaningful action. 

In fact, at a recent interview with PR Week, Google’s global marketing VP, Marvin Chow, warned that brands should not fall into the “purpose parade” trap which will eventually create “purpose fatigue.” He was also quoted as saying that brands need to have a consistency of commitment and start with a core set of values. 

The fact is that communication without leadership is nothing but empty words. Important issues, such as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) cannot be just all talk – it requires people and organizations to take real actions to make it work. Instead of superficial exercises, purposeful leadership must involve fundamental programmes and initiatives including reviewing the brand’s value chain, carbon footprint, sustainability practices, and many more.

“Spinning” stories about a cause without taking meaningful action is hollow. People will see through it eventually. This is a major reason why PR has gained a somewhat unsavoury reputation among some quarters, because there is this misconception that we are “spin masters” trying to cover up wrongs or incompetence by painting an unrealistic or even false picture of things.

That could not be further from the truth of what PR is about or what PR professionals with integrity stand for.

Authentic leadership

It is easy for people and brands to talk about having purpose, but it is not an easy journey to make it real. It takes guts and grit to manifest brand purpose and values into the real world, especially in bad times or during crises. And that requires authentic leadership, not just talk.

Of course, I may be oversimplifying by saying Communication is Leadership to make a point. It is true that communication is an integral part of leadership. But to think that communication can replace Leadership is a grave mistake. You can even say the two are symbiotic – one cannot exist without the other especially in today’s digital marketplace.

Another obvious example of this is when organizations and leaders talk about people being their greatest asset. Yet, it is often the case that the staff are often one of the first “costs” to be cut when things become a little more challenging than usual. But a company that truly values its people will base its decision on people’s well-being – especially during a crisis.

Indeed, it is during a crisis that a leader’s mettle is revealed. It takes a lot of leadership for companies to talk to stakeholders, including their staff, to explain the true situation and articulate a solution that truly values and honors their greatest assets. It is not just communicating either. Leadership must be demonstrated by accountability, responsibility and empathy to others. 

When leadership action is in place, PR and Communication can play a great role to clearly articulate these values. Good communication practices by trained professionals can help smoothen the communication process and mitigate any backlash that may arise from difficult situations.

Perhaps it is time communication professionals “PR our PR” and reclaim our reputation as behind the scenes supporters who help make GOOD leaders GREAT. We need to let stakeholders know that the world needs authentic leadership more than ever in these difficult and uncertain times, and there is no way PR can spin poor leadership. 

Andy See
Founder, Principal Partner & Managing Director, Perspective Strategies
After spending more than 10 years working with leading multinational and Malaysian consultancies including The Boston Consulting Group and Edelman, Andy decided to reinvent his career by setting up his own firm. This led to the birth of Perspective Strategies in 2006. The boutique agency grew quickly with the promise of delivering strategic counsel and quality services to clients and has over the years won numerous industry awards on the global and national levels. Aside from steering the firm’s strategic direction and managing key client relationships, Andy regularly conducts spokesperson training and speaks at industry events on strategic communications, issues management and stakeholder engagement. Currently, he is the President of the Public Relations and Communications Association of Malaysia (PRCA Malaysia), spearheading efforts to champion the interest of PR professionals including industry best practices, quality and standards as well as talent development.  Since 2017, Perspective Strategies has been part of the Public Relations Global Network (PRGN), one of the world's leading independent PR agency networks. Andy is on the Executive Committee, serving as Secretary and Regional Vice-President for Asia Pacific (APAC). As Regional Vice-President, Andy leads PRGN's initiatives in growing the network's presence in APAC by pushing to enhance communication, improve coordination and drive momentum at the regional level. Andy also actively contributes articles and thought leadership pieces on PR, leadership and strategic communications in various publications and online platforms.

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