The Canary in the Coal Mine

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By Virgil Scudder

Fairly and unfairly, public relations practitioners are called many things: flak, information source, mouthpiece, propagandist, facilitator, gatekeeper. Let me add another: “the canary in the coal mine”.

That’s the message I gave to PR heads of the big insurance firms during a recent talk at a conference of the Insurance Public Relations Council in Miami Beach, Florida. A key role of the head of public relations of any company is to spot trouble before it hits, to be the early warning agent. Too often, however, PR is kept in the dark about developing events that could turn into full-blown crisis. If fully informed and encouraged to speak up, the public relations professional can provide early warning and help avoid a disastrous chain of events.

Here is an excerpt from the talk. “Do you think informed and empowered PR would have sat quietly by when first indications of manufacturing flaws occurred at GM, Toyota, or Takata? Or, rather, wouldn’t a good PR pro have said, ‘We have to face this head-on; admit the problem, fix it, do right by people who are hurt, and apologize.’

“That’s public relations. It’s also responsible management. And, it would have avoided numerous deaths, billions of dollars in recalls, huge money losses in other ways, and diminished public trust.”

Failing to hear, or heed, an early warning when potentially fatal product problems were discovered, the companies plowed ahead producing dangerous equipment. The costs, by any measurement, were greater than they should have been or needed to be.

Any significant problem brought to top management should also be relayed to the head of public relations for counsel. The canary in the coal mine can’t function if it remains in a cage on the surface.