“I think sometimes you need someone to stop you.” —Donna Noble, The Runaway Bride
“I got too big, Dorium. Too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.” —The Doctor, The Wedding of River Song
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Oscar Wilde once remarked that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. Sometimes that’s the manic mindset some organizations have around their external image.
And no one knows manic better than the Doctor.
The Doctor is the chief character in Doctor Who, a 49-year-old television series considered the longest-running science fiction show in history. The Doctor is a Time Lord who travels across galaxies and centuries in a device called the TARDIS, which resembles an antique British police box. (On the outside, anyway. It’s far more technical, and bigger, on the inside.)
Like the show itself in earlier years, the Doctor has spent most of his time in relative obscurity. But one can save whole planets only so many times before gaining a bit of notoriety. And so the Doctor has found himself in a dilemma. At his best he is widely known and admired; at his worst he is hated and feared. He embraces both reputations when convenient and resents them when they aren’t.
In essence, he is an example of that old saying, “Be careful what you wish for—you might get it.”
The same can be true for organizations that apply PR without strategic thought. If you swing open the doors in pursuit of positive press, you can’t slam them shut during a bad-news situation and expect a fair shake—or any continued interest in you when things settle down.
Some years ago, a company I know had a no-media policy at one of its sites. There was little external awareness of its innovative work. When the decision was made to reach out to reporters and educate them on that work, the site quickly gained a broad, positive reputation. A few years later, business needs caused huge staff reductions. Rather than go silent, the company proactively turned to those same reporters to explain the changes. That transparent approach earned the company a chance to share its side and provide a balanced message.
Sadly, this isn’t always the norm. Some corporations push their PR departments to get them on the cover of Business Week as an industry model, then complain when those same reps can’t quash a negative story, or when “no comment” isn’t the magic wand that makes the piece go away.
Not long ago, the Doctor in Doctor Who used his fame to intimidate his enemies and manipulate his friends. When he realized the consequences of that fame—among them good people dying—he managed to have nearly all record of his existence erased. Now he revels in anonymity. But somehow I doubt he is any more strategic in his thinking. The day may come when his lost notoriety would be valuable, perhaps even life-saving. An either/or approach isn’t likely to serve the Doctor well in the long run.
The same is true with public relations. Building relationships and dialogue with your audiences can bring great rewards. It also carries risks. The key is applying it strategically—which can put your reputation back on track when bad things happen.