The Chicago Bulls apparently have a PR problem, and if it's not friction between their coach and general manager, it's the timing of hobbled superstar Derrick Rose's return to action.
Chicago is said to have a PR problem when it comes to public safety.
Rarely is anything just a problem. When things go wrong, it's often framed as a public relations problem. It's become a default mode, as if the whole world has adopted the perspective of Shakespeare's great ditherer, Hamlet, that there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
"You're at the crux of a problem that a lot of clients and sometimes media pundits … have a hard time getting their arms around," said Dennis Culloton, a former spokesman for ex-Illinois Gov. George Ryan who heads Chicago's Culloton Strategies. "They want public relations spin to overtake bad facts. That's human nature."
It may be tempting to get things exactly backward, to allow public relations to overshadow real problems. It is simpler. It is more manageable. It also plays into the hands of those who would prefer to divert attention from what went wrong.
Those in the midst of a crisis often no doubt would prefer to believe their troubles are largely a matter of perception rather than reality. That would absolve them of responsibility for the underlying dysfunctions, transgressions or failings. On the outside, among not just the press but the public, this mindset has its own appeal: Efforts to sway our opinions ultimately are about us.
But while public opinion is out in the open and easier to track than reform behind closed doors, it's not the image of the Internal Revenue Service that needs attention so much as its policies and the misguided way it has operated. Chicago's image here and elsewhere improves as the number of violent crimes declines.
There's been a lot of talk about how to rehabilitate Paula Deen's image and not enough about how to re-educate Paula Deen.
It's vital to know the difference between problems of perception and problems of substance, regardless of which one needs solving.
"There's the court of public opinion and the court of public law, and oftentimes it's not a PR solution that's going to solve any one problem," said Guy Chipparoni, who heads local PR shop Res Publica.
That said, some problems are indeed PR problems. Last year, when the decades-old practices of South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. to process meat were reduced to shorthand as "pink slime," it was a body blow to the company. It was operating within accepted food standards, but that message got lost in the uproar.
"There's always the thing about the wisdom of the crowd always being correct," said Vince Wladika, an East Coast-based PR consultant. "If there's a debate, you leave it to the crowd, the crowd will decide. But I could argue the flip side of that. The crowd can turn into a mob and a mob is never right. Sometimes the problem (in public relations) is keeping people balanced, and it's much harder these days. Nowadays, a Twitter rant can set the world on fire."
It mattered not that for years consumers had eaten BPI-processed burgers happily unaware that the processing included chemically treating the meat with ammonia mist to eliminate the potential for E. coli, salmonella and other contaminants. Suddenly they could not stomach it.
"It's unfortunate that our company has been cast into such a negative light with people having an extreme negative connotation to what we do when we've been recognized for our food safety efforts," a BPI executive told me at the time.
Compare BPI's PR problem to the very real problem British Petroleum had in 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig went down and 4.9 million barrels of crude seeped into the Gulf of Mexico. BP and its leadership made many PR missteps along the way, but that was tangential to the real issue.
"You've got a bunch of cracks in the dam (and executives) think PR can fill in the cracks and make the dam last another 50 years," Wladika said. "PR can maybe help fill the cracks, but that doesn't mean the dam isn't going to break next week."
"The whole deal was going up in flames, and that's when I got hired and they weren't getting their story out at all," he said. "They had decided the story (of the jobs that would come with the move) wasn't important. You had people who had engineering perspectives draw up plans, submit them to a local village and just expected it to go swimmingly."
But Culloton also knows all too well the limits of spin from his days in Springfield, working with Ryan, who ultimately was undone by scandal and went to prison on federal corruption charges.
"There were aspects of the governor that needed to be told that did come across when you gave him the right initiatives or the right projects or if he seized the right opportunities and did them in a forward thinking way," Culloton said.
"But he still had a growing investigation based on decisions, actions and accidents that happened over a number of years for which there was nothing you could do to change those decisions, those leases, those licenses, those fundraising tactics. … It's a perfect example of how you couldn't spin your way out of the terrible problem he found himself in."
Culloton's current clients include the Ricketts family, which controls the Chicago Cubs, and the team's rocky efforts to win approval for plans to renovate Wrigley Field and develop property around the ballpark.
"The family has done a lot to share its vision for Wrigley Field and the neighborhood, and has committed to spending $500 million of private and family money to get it done," he said. "From what we see, that message has been communicated pretty successfully. We just need to keep working through the political and government steps."
Not everyone may see it that way and the matter remains unresolved. Is that a PR problem or a real problem?
"In my view, it's a third category," Culloton said. "It is a political problem."