In a shocking report that underscores just how little value Irish national broadcaster RTÉ places on its reputation and its relationship with the public it is supposed to serve, the Irish Independent this week revealed that RTÉ has spent a meager €80,000 on external public relations counsel as it seeks to deal with a series of scandals.

A little background may be necessary for those who don’t pay close attention to Irish business crises: in June of last year RTÉ disclosed previously unreported levels of pay to one of its most prominent presenters. Subsequent reporting revealed further details about corporate entertainment for advertising clients, executive compensation, and exit packages for senior figures.

There followed a public inquiry into the payments, clashes between the broadcaster’s chairperson and director general, and then between the executive board and the Irish minister responsible for media and the arts, an audit that revealed secret accounts, claims that the investigation into those secret accounts was reminiscent of the Nuremberg trials (because of course), all culminating in the resignation of chair Siún Ní Raghallaigh.

As a result of all this, RTÉ is now one of the least trusted companies in Ireland, according to annual Irish Customer Experience Report, which found that the company’s “trust score” declined by 25%.

This is, in other words, a fairly significant crisis, one that might be expected to trouble the company’s board of directors. And indeed, the board of director has—as per that Irish Independent report—sought public relations counsel from “one of the country’s leading corporate communications and public affairs firms,” Q4 Public Relations.

The article includes a statement from the board (which it said “defended” hiring a PR firm: “The board of RTÉ is independently appointed by government and retains its own separate communications advice and service. This is provided by Q4 Public Relations, who were appointed by the board of RTÉ following a procurement process.”

Under the circumstances, that’s a pretty temperate response, it seems to me. I might have been tempted to say something like, “When you are being sued in a court of law you hire a lawyer. When trust in your brand is being undermined, you hire an expert in restoring trust. Anything else would be negligent in the extreme.”

It is, obviously, what any responsible organization would do in these circumstances. There are, after all, any number of issues the board might want to understand better:

  • How are different stakeholders (employees, viewers, taxpayers, regulators) responding the crisis?
  • What or who are their trusted sources of information?
  • Do they understand the facts of the case, or is misinformation influencing the discussion?
  • Are there aspects of the scandal that create more outrage than others?
  • Are their explanations or defenses that stakeholders find persuasive?
  • What promises—and subsequent changes in behavior—will help to restore the public’s trust?
  • Do all the directors in place at the time of the scandal need to resign?
  • What qualities should the company looks for in new management and new directors in order to rebuild trust?

This is far from an exhaustive list of questions I would want answered if I was on the board of directors. And so yes, I would want the help of a professional public relations firm to provide some of the answers. I would have, in most companies, a fiduciary responsibility to learn those answers.

And I would want a third-party public relations firm to help me with those answers—and then with the communications strategy to restore public trust—rather than using the in-house press office to which the article refers, for a number of reasons.

  1. There’s a big difference between handling the day-to-day communications needs of a large organization and managing a crisis that threatens its long-term viability. Bringing in someone with a wealth of crisis management experience is essential.
  2. Even if the in-house press team has experience in this regard, it has to continue to do its day job, which it can’t do if it is constantly helping the board put out fires.
  3. There is inherent value to having an outside perspective at times like this, especially if the in-house team was in place when the issues that led to the crisis first arose.

Which is why I began this story the way I did, with the implication that if RTÉ is getting even a fraction of the public relations help it needs for €80,000 (actually, €65,202 plus VAT, as the article helpfully explains) then it is getting the bargain of a lifetime. If it is not getting all of this, then it needs to rethinking its approach to crisis management—and quickly.

The truth, of course, is that I don’t know what value the board of RTÉ is getting for its investment here. I don’t know the scope of Q4’s work. But neither, it seems, does the Irish Independent.

This is the supreme irony: the article itself is a perfect example of “spin.” It provides no detail or context that might help the casual reader understand whether €80,000 is a little or a lot. Yet it is written in a way that encourages the reader to share the journalist’s outrage that RTÉ is spending money to defend its reputation. The headline, “RTÉ have spent €80k on external PR advice since the crisis started, despite having an in-house PR department” and later in the story, “The RTÉ board defended having a separate PR service” (emphasis mine in both cases) make the reporter’s feelings clear—despite the fact that this is presented as “news.”

I shouldn’t be surprised, and in reality I’m not. This kind of thing has been going on since the first day I started writing about public relations. The relationship between journalists and public relations people has always been marred by a one-sided contempt—despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that most journalists have relatively little understand of what public relations people do.

So spending money on public relations becomes—as in this story—evidence of either nefarious intent or wasteful spending.

Perhaps there is simply nothing that can be done about this. Individual journalists have likely formed their own impression of PR based on their interactions with media relations people (although that kind of work is now just the tip of the PR iceberg).

But maybe a story like this is a teachable moment: an opportunity for a trade association or a professional body to reach out, or push back, to talk about the immense value communications professionals can add during a crisis—and the extraordinary price companies can pay for neglecting public trust at times like these.