President's Column: Andra Bennett House, APR
Remember the long-running game show Truth or Consequences? Sometimes in the world of PR, it’s a game known as Truth AND Consequences.
Everyone agrees if we lie about, hide or omit critical facts, we will eventually pay the consequences. But truth – or personal opinion – has consequences as well.
Some months ago, this debate hit the blogs regarding Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who penned an Aug. 11 opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal regarding health care reform. It prompted thousands of comments on Whole Food’s Internet forum, and protesters called for a boycott of the store.
Mackey certainly has freedom of speech, freedom to his opinions. But were the public relations implications – and the financial ripple effects – worth sharing those opinions in such a public forum? Health care as a philosophy is certainly tied into Whole Foods’ mission, but taking a political stance may have unnecessarily alienated too much of the customer base. The jury is still out.
Another example that comes to my mind recently is Rush Limbaugh’s bid to become co-owner of the St. Louis Rams. Some high-profile NFL players said they would not play for Limbaugh, based on racial comments he has made in the past, so he was dropped from the bid. Others, like Time magazine’s Bill Saporito, think that the NFL “is just another big business — why should it be anything less — only with a huge amount of ego attached to it. Rush should fit in quite well.”
Rush, as a nationally-known public figure and entertainer who often says polarizing things on the airwaves, is either worshiped or vilified. Anyone entering into a business relationship would certainly be within their rights to weigh the benefits vs. the risks of teaming up with a person whose larger-than-life reputation could impact the value or operation of a franchise.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise when a public figure cannot separate unrelated business dealings from his or her reputation. We cannot separate a pastor’s / CEO’s / radio host’s personal opinions or private behavior from their public responsibility to their trustholders. They can’t live their lives in compartments. Is that fair? Not always. But it’s the way it is.
Public figures have always been scrutinized and held to higher standards. With today’s 24/7 media, now more than ever, freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from the consequences of your speech.