Massage the message

An honest approach to PR builds cred.

Remember the old maxim that says no publicity is bad publicity? Well, you can go ahead and toss that one in the trash, particularly if you're one of the high-profile (and high-net-worth) individuals on our Rich 100 this year. In the celebrity-obsessed culture we live in, where word spreads like wildfire, knowing how to work the public-relations machine has become a fine art. These days, getting out your message simply isn't good enough–it's how you deliver it.

Each year, Canadian Business profiles this country's 100 wealthiest families and individuals, who range from the notoriously media shy to the famously outspoken. In the former camp, for example, are construction giants and brothers Fred and Ron Mannix (No. 10) of Calgary, who, as legend has it, fine their communications people every time their names pop up in the press. Future Electronics founder Robert Miller (No. 53), reportedly has a private entrance to his Montreal office to avoid the prying eyes of employees. On the flip side, individuals such as mutual fund mogul Michael Lee-Chin (No. 11) and former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman (No. 61) are routinely photographed hobnobbing with Canada's cultural and corporate elite, and can usually be counted on to provide sound bites to media types on matters corporate, personal or philanthropic. And then there are people like clothing magnate Peter Nygård (No. 72) and Galen and Hilary Weston (No. 2) of bakery, retail and Loblaw fame, whose star quality is well-established outside the office, but who typically shy away from speaking to the media outside of regular channels such as annual general meetings or quarterly conference calls.

According to some of Canada's top spin doctors, all three approaches have their pros and cons. Taking an open, honest and consistent approach to public relations can translate into more profile, competitive advantage and, ultimately, increased sales. Pursuing frequent communication with the public can also help buy a company or an individual more credibility–and trust–if and when something goes wrong. Generating the wrong kind of buzz, however, can be a kiss of death. “Those who court the media, court disaster if they are simply looking at it to enhance their own profile,” says John Crean, a Toronto-based managing partner at National Public Relations, Canada's largest independent PR firm. “Bad publicity can have an exponential impact on your reputation–and it's more sticky.”

Crean says good corporate PR should always be measured, well-planned, consistent and, most importantly, tied back to the business. “The guys at Enron confused their success at Enron with being good at any business they could put their hands on,” he notes. “When you start believing your own press and thinking you're God–that's when the pendulum swings back and every failure becomes magnified.”

Judy Lewis, co-founder and executive vice-president of Toronto PR firm Strategic Objectives, offers her own cautions: “I don't necessarily believe there is a lot of value in building personal profile if it is the type of profile that doesn't actually build on the business strategy.”

Take Canadian mining magnate Robert Friedland (No. 38), whose brash, larger-than-life reputation is perfectly matched with his aggressive plans to expand his Vancouver-based Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. into a global giant. Or Warren Buffett, whose reputation as the “Oracle of Omaha” has been built around his steady, stable and value-oriented approach to investing. In person, he's much the same way. In both cases, consistency in messaging is key, says Lewis.

Philanthropy is another area where the type, and frequency, of the message is paramount. Although corporate and personal do-gooders can highlight an important charitable cause or perhaps inspire others to give, they can also be seen as self-aggrandizing if they go overboard. “You can't say that all people that give money and then publicize it are out to stroke their ego,” says Crean. “But as soon as they become more important than the cause, there's reason to worry.”

Contrary to what many people believe, staying out of the limelight isn't always a bad idea. “Senior executives or high-net-worth individuals really must be comfortable with the idea of speaking to the media before they do so,” says Lewis. “They have to decide whether their profile and their demeanor are actually going to enhance the brand value, because if they don't come across well, it may not serve them well.”

Of course, there are consequences to keeping quiet. “Anonymity is always nice until things go wrong,” says Crean. “The absence of character witnesses or some equity in that reputational bank account may make it harder to deal with crisis.”

Most importantly, Crean adds, it's what others say about you–rather than what you say about yourself–that really counts in the court of public opinion.