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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Insert Round Peg Into Square Hole

If it doesn’t fit, you must quit.

I know I’ve said that I probably wouldn’t write about something that everyone else has written about, but this thing with Groupon and its now former head of PR, Bradford Williams, was just too juicy to ignore.

Just two months. That was all that it took before Mr. Williams resigned from his post as the top PR strategist for one of the hottest companies in the market at the time.

In all of my dozen or so years in this profession can I recall a similar incident where a highly touted communicator joined an organization and stepped down in such a rapid fashion, all the while the company that hired him was cresting in popularity and attempting to take their brand public. If there is another comparable case of this happening, by all means please do share. This type of thing has to be a rarity.

But what went so wrong that it prompted such a speedy public divorce? One can only speculate (so I think I will).

Before I get into the negatives, let me first give Groupon credit for understanding the important role of communications in its business strategy and making the investment to bring in a quality talent to oversee this effort. I saw Mr. Williams’ background and it was nothing to sneeze at. The brands he has worked for and with reads like a who’s who: VeriSign, Yahoo!, eBay, Levi Strauss & Co. and Gateway. In this industry, he would be what we refer to as a heavy hitter.

So with the supposedly right man in place the next logical step was to let him do the job he was hired to do. But that didn’t exactly happen, and my guess is that the barrier between those two events taking place had a lot to do with there being a lack of agreement in strategy and its plan for execution.

But how bad was the communication strategy gap between the experienced PR Pro and Groupon’s C-suite that it called for an immediate parting of the ways? I’m thinking canyon like.

Though an unfortunate but not unheard of situation, sometimes company leadership can be a little too hands on when it comes to communications strategy. This usually occurs when someone in leadership, typically the CEO, feels extremely confident about how to execute a company’s PR function, despite leading the charge or at least buying into the concept that someone with experience needed to be brought in to handle this important task.

If the decision is made to bring the necessary expertise in-house, then that company’s leadership has to not only create the space for that person to succeed, but it is imperative that they trust in that person’s experience. If you need surgery for a medical problem you’re experiencing, you’re not going to seek out a physician, solicit his consultation and then when time for surgery proceed to tell the surgeon how the operation should go because you’ve been in a hospital before or watched season one of “ER” on DVD.

So why do it when it comes to something as important as your external communications or protecting/projecting the image of your brand? The best advice is to trust your judgment in hiring the right person for the job, not using the opportunity to have somebody new simply rubber stamp your ideas.

If not, what happens when that person is brought into the company is that he/she is expected to validate what the company wants to do anyway. This is not a winning strategy and only marginalizes that individual’s expertise. In my eyes communications experience is just as valuable or important as say legal experience and it should be treated as such.

On the flipside, as a professional communicator what should you do when your years of experience and insights are at odds with the very people who hired you for those attributes in the first place?

Well the way I see it, you can do one of several things. You can tow the company line, put your professional knowledge aside and execute the communications strategy as dictated by leadership. You can come riding in on your abilities and past successes, confident in the understanding of your craft and ready to fight for what you feel is right. Or, you can think longer term about what you’ve gotten yourself into, see that this is not a good fit for your skill sets and cut your losses early.

Mr. Williams chose the latter. But I ask you, fellow PR professionals, if placed in the same situation what would you do?

As always, I welcome your feedback.


  1. I'm late on this. But you're welcome. Thanks for reading and for the positive feedback.