Auditing PR’s weakest link: The public interface

chain1.jpgThis post began as a customer service rant, but since it’s all been said before, I decided to let it go. Then I discovered this PR lesson, an old chestnut from my past.

It began at 6:30 this morning when I retrieved my wet newspaper from the box at the curb. It rained hard all night, but my carrier didn’t bother with the plastic sleeve. She seldom does, and I’ve given up calling or writing circulation to complain. Nothing changes.

The second complaint involves my physician, whose office staff won’t snail mail a blood work order to my home. Instead, they insist I come to the office and pick it up. The office is 30 minutes away, so that’s an hour of my day and $5 worth of gas — just so they can save a stamp.

When a business treats me shabbily, I don’t complain. I simply don’t return. But I don’t have a choice with my local newspaper, short of ignoring local events. I also don’t care to replace a competent and caring doctor with one who knows nothing about me. (Please don’t tell me to read the paper online. Sharing coffee and the newspaper with my wife is a ritual I’m not about to give up. )

ups.jpgNo matter how creative or strategic our PR programs may be, our clients’ public face is shaped by the customer interface — an area over which most of us have no control. Large companies like UPS understand. That’s why drivers wear clean, neat uniforms and drive clean, brown trucks. Disney understands, too. That’s why every employee from CEO to maintenance worker is coached on how to be a “cast” member.

But most of us don’t have clients with mega training budgets or corporate identity police. So it’s up to us to spot the weak links and call attention to them.

When I counseled clients for a living, I offered a service we called the “impression audit.” I didn’t sell it, but offered it as a value-added service. Simply put, the audit was a thorough review of how clients performed at key public interface points, from telephone calls and reception areas to delivery drivers and vehicles. The question was simple: What message do these people and things convey?

We looked for weak links that were inconsistent with corporate messages and philosophies — links that could sway perceptions or disrupt the lives of key publics.

There’s no magic in this process. You just have to do it.

We began by identifying initial public contact points, then we observed the client’s performance at each one. How long did it take for a phone call to be answered and routed? How often was it routed incorrectly? What messages did visitors receive from exterior building appearance, signs, greeting areas, etc.? What was the appearance and demeanor of key contact personnel?

See what I mean? No magic. But how many of us actually take time to make these assessments? Public contact points (and people) shape perceptions — sometimes indelibly. And if someone doesn’t spot the weakness, the rest of our stellar PR efforts may go for naught. The walk won’t match the talk, to throw in the obligatory cliche.

What do your companies or clients do to ensure a consistent public-contact message? While you’re posting your thoughts, I’ll be reading the Beacon Journal. It’s almost dry.

6 Responses to Auditing PR’s weakest link: The public interface

  1. Jen White says:

    My best experience with consistent public-contact messaging comes not from my time working in PR at an agency, but as a part-time retail employee, I job I applied for on a whim for the holiday season years ago. The store is a national chain that sells mid- to high-end furniture and, uh, hardware, trinkets, etc. Retail has extremely high turnover, even more so during the holiday season. We had training, but the one message that was repeated over and over, and really the only thing we were truly expected to retain was a simple phrase.

    “Do the right thing.”

    That’s it. It applied to everything: customer contact, customer service, working with your managers and coworkers, cleaning the store after close, and so on. Simple, but effective.

    Of course, when you have humans interacting with other humans, and different mores and standards, the application might not be uniform. But that’s where good hiring practices need to come in.

    A company cannot expect to have consistently good PR if it does not “do the right thing.” Across all channels, from the way that it treats employees, vendors, customers, all the way to its environmental committment.

  2. […] How could a company that puts out such tremendous products also have such terrible customer care? Bill Sledzik addresses this issue in his latest blog. As PR professionals, we must understand that “no […]

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  4. Mike says:

    Think about the extent to which “impression auditing” would grow in today’s world of social media. John Doe’s Facebook profile says he works for XYZ Company, right next to the picture of him slamming Jack Daniel’s like, well, like it’s his job. That, of course, is one link away from a public message posted by his friend who, for no apparent reason, decided John’s wall should explain what a “[body part]” John is. Jokingly, of course.

    And over on John’s blog, he tends to get rather passionate about how annoying some of his coworkers are, which leads to profanity and maybe the occasional “I wish Jane would get hit by a bus.”

    Add to that a Flickr account and multiply it all by a Twitter feed, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a public perception issue. At the same time, any company that tries to restrict its employees public Web activity is going to get some strange looks from a lot of current and potential employees.

    What’s a PR person to do?

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Yep. And you aren’t the first to ask that question, Mike. While I’m long past worrying about my resume, I intentionally limit my online exposure to this blog, Facebook and Flickr. And the blog is the only place I say anything that might raise an eyebrow.

    We talk a lot to our students about auditing their digital profiles and protecting their personal brand. But within a few years, I’m betting damn few people will be able to pass a digital background check without something turning up. At the same time, the students’ blogs (we require them in one of our classes) have turned into outstanding reputation builders for those who take them seriously.

    Eventually I will make a blunder on this blog that will get me in trouble, and some are convinced I have with this post.

    That’s why I never blog after slamming Jack Daniels. I just put the laptop away and pour another shot.

  6. […] few months back I wrote a post about the “weakest link” for most companies — the link of the customer interface. While customer service doesn’t […]

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