When I decided to become a journalist, I had a vision of myself as one of those investigative reporters in All the President’s Men or Edge of Darkness, uncovering all sorts of dastardly deeds. While a certain amount of my 20 year career involved investigative journalism, a lot also involved interviewing CEOs, going to lunch and chasing PRs for press releases.
When I moved into PR I thought I’d left investigative digging behind. But soon found it is an essential part of the good PR’s arsenal. What you soon learn is your client, internal or external, doesn’t always tell you the whole truth. This doesn’t mean they lie, but often they edit our embarrassing issues, give you the broad brush while omitting vital details or simply forget to tell you something that is critically important.
This is why I believe that the PR has to take the role of the investigative reporter with the client or within their organisation. You have to ask the tricky questions that the media will ask, and you have to obtain robust, defensible answers. If you don’t ask the question or if you don’t get proper answers, you are a massive hostage to fortune.
When Paul Bulcke, Chief Executive Officer of Nestlé, said on 13th February the group had only been affected by the horsemeat scandal in that “the whole industry is in question again, and that is unfortunate” he said that this was not an issue for the world’s largest food group. Yet a matter of days later, Nestlé was having to eat its words as horsemeat DNA was found in its wonderfully named “Lasagnes a la Bolognaise Gourmandes”.
The question you have to ask is why did Mr Bulcke make himself such a hostage to fortune? This might have been an off the cuff comment on 13th but the question couldn’t have been unexpected. Who at Nestle was saying to the CEO “are we absolutely sure we are OK on this?” This is a key element of the process of protecting corporate repuations.
The role of the investigative PR has never been so clear. It’s a difficult job, often makes you less than popular with your client but it stops your CEO being shown to stepped in the horse manure.