Posted by Shel Holtz
Knowing that my views often contradict hers, Amanda invited me to write this "Week in Review" specifically to offer my contrary views. This is the second of these reviews; it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if it isn't the last.
The attack on Phil Gomes left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, the same disgusting taste I've experienced when reading other broadsides aimed at individuals when they have done nothing to warrant it. It undermines Strumpette's other commentary on the profession. People like me who are offended by the savagery of these undeserved attacks wind up viewing all Strumpette posts through the same filter, or simply give up on the blog altogether.
The specifics of this particular attack are especially confounding. Phil simply reported that he was moving from Los Angeles to Chicago. He made it clear that the primary reason was a desire to be close to the woman he loves, with whom he has had to suffer through the difficulties of a long-distance relationship. Why this should be a launching platform for insults unrelated to any reality is a rationale that escapes me.
Labeling the piece "satire" doesn't make it any more palatable.
Make no mistake. If Phil had done something egregious in his work or written something outrageous on his blog, he would be a legitimate target. But he did not. And the glee with which Amanda has found a way to twist an innocuous post into a venemous assault is disturbing, to say the least. You have to wonder if there isn't something personal going on here.
By way of disclosure, I should note that I know Phil Gomes. I like him and respect him deeply. I think he's a scary-smart guy who has done a lot of good work. He has also given of himself based on things he cares about. He is one of the co-founders of the Bay Area's Third Thursday event. He produces EarShot, the Edelman podcast, in his spare time; it's not one of his job responsibilities.
Beyond that, he's one of the only people I know who wins awards he didn't seek. Most of us submit entries to competitions, but Phil just finds out that he's been honored for his work. His clients are always delighted with his work. (Phil once told me that the only complaint ever lodged against him was over the fact that he uses too many big words.)
Phils has creds. He spent five years with the Stanford Research Institute, where he earned widespread, mainstream, and sustainable attention for concepts and technologies that make my head spin. While working essentially as an independent communicator, Phil helped guide startup clients to win -- twice -- the Technology Pioneers honor at the World Economic Forum.
Now Phil works in the Me2 Revolution group at Edelman, another of Strumpette's routine targets. There's no question that Edelman has stumbled in its efforts to implement social media solutions for some of its clients and deserves to be called out for it. In fact, I've written less-than-flattering posts about Edelman during the various WalMart debacles and the Vista kerfuffle. (I've also written about Ketchum and several other agencies whose behaviors warrant attention.) But these are a handful of incidents compared to the thousands of assignments for countless clients who have been well-served by Edelman's expertise. I recall hearing, for example, that Edelman is the AOR for the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. The only word for the PR efforts on Dove's behalf is "masterful."
When Edelman or Phil or anyone else blunders, I'll be right there with Amanda commenting on it, not for the delight in skewering someone, or the perverse job derived from knowing you've hurt someone, but rather to learn from the error.
But this kind of pointless, mean-spirited attack? There is no justification for it.
Now, on to other matters.
License to Practice
In the first post of the week, Amanda discovered that Nigeria requires public relations practitioners to be certified in order to be able to practice. If you're not certified -- the equivalent of a license -- you're breaking the law.
Nigeria is not the only country with this requirement that is more commonly associated with doctors, lawyers, accountants, and the like. Panama and Brazil (where I'll be traveling next month) also require licenses. The most prominent proponent of licensing, in fact, was Edward Bernays, the widely-acknowledged father of modern PR.
The arguments for licensing have been covered broadly; not the least among them is the notion that licensing will elevate PR into the ranks of doctors and lawyers -- that is, it will become a true "profession."
But I don't buy it. Not only are doctors, lawyers, and accountants required to obtain a license, they need to get the license for any jurisdiction in which they want to practice. When a doctor moves from New York to California, he has to pass the test to practice in California. Licensing is a means of assuring that someone engaged in that kind of work is thoroughly versed in the laws and standards in that region.
PR is different on two counts. First, the practice of PR is based largely on creativity; it is not grounded in black-and-white solutions. Accountants have limited ways to tote numbers in a ledger. Doctors must diagose the right illness and treat it with proven methods. Communicators, on the other hand, work in a business where their job is to differentiate their employers or clients from the pack, to make them stand out. We do that by finding new and different ways to get messages across, to get people talking, to address organizational issues. We should, of course, be governed by ethical behavior, but unlike a doctor whose course of action will be "treat with an antibiotic," a PR practitioner is rarely required to "issue a statement" or "hold an event." How, then, do you test practitioners when there are no black-and-white, up-or-down, yes-or-no correct answers? And do you punish a practitioner for stepping outside the bounds and trying something that's never been tried before (like the recent upload of an unscripted announcement by JetBlue Chairman David Neeleman to YouTube) just because it's not on the exam?
Second, geographic issues are often non-existent but other dimensions are critical -- culture, for example.
We're better off with accreditation programs like those offered by PRSA and IABC that are able to gauge a communicator's general understanding of what it means to manage a communication function. Those programs only need greater recognition to have meaning outside the insular profession.
So Amanda's discouraged. She finds people in the profession doing despicable things and paints every practitioner with the same brush. She thinks she's discouraged? Sheesh -- try working in this profession with honorable and decent poeple whose behavior would never mirror that of the subjects of Amanda's post, then being told you're just like them because you happen to work in the same field. Now, that's discouraging.
I even remarked on this in the latest installment of "For Immediate Release," the podcast I co-host with Neville Hobson. I read another assault on the profession, reported by New York Times tech columnist and blogger David Pogue, that referred to us as "PR parasites." I was preparing to craft a response, but finally said, "Screw it."
Look; we're in one of the most visible professions on earth, one of the few with the word "public" in the name. Every profession has its bottom-feeders, its losers, those who take the easy way out or will do anything for a buck. Because we're so visible, these people stand out. It's easy, then, for the cynical to assume everybody in the business is like that. The epiphany for me was this: There's nothing we can do about that. The answer, then, is to do outstanding work, to behave ethically, and to take pride in what we do.
As for Amanda, she could benefit from spending some time in the offices of people like Mike Manuel or any of the countless others who toil honorably, produce excellent results for the clients, and manage to do so while adhering to the highest of ethical standards.
It's worth noting that Pogue, in response to a comment, said he was only quoting someone else and that he thinks many PR people do top-flight work. He wrote...
If there are PR practitioners who motivate that kind of response from a journalist, Amanda should feel better.
Phil Hall believes PR measurement is important. We have no argument there. He also believes it's easy. Well, it can be. But simply attributing any change you were trying to affect to your PR efforts is just plain silly. Is PR the only function working to affect share price, sales, reputation? Of course not; several factors are in play working toward these goals. To take credit for a spike in share price just because you launched a PR effort ignores the various other forces that could account for some or all of that increase.
While measurement should be part of PR 101 classes and texts, knowing how to do it is not a 101-type of exercise. I wish it were; it would make life easier for a lot of us.
First, you need a baseline against which to measure. There is a current state and a desired state. The impact you want to have must be aligned with the objectives that drove the strategy you developed. I just love reading case studies from people who lay out lofty objectives (e.g., "To move 15% of the negative opinion about product X into the neutral or positive camps"), then offer the results ("Sales went up after we launched our effort.") Excuse me? Those sales could have come from new customers or existing satisfied customers. Your effort was aimed at disaffected cusomters. Your must measure against your objectives.
While it may be easy to measure sales if you're a marcomm professional trying to drive sales, what about the crisis communication effort? If JetBlue doesn't start selling a ton of tickets in the next couple weeks, did their crisis communication efforts fail? No, it's more complicated than that (whether we like it or not). JetBlue is dealing with emotional reactions to events and trying to influence opinions. The payback will be long-term, not short-term. (And, not to beat on a dead horse, that's one of the differences between PR and marcomm.)
As I said, measurement sometimes is easy. The degree of difficulty depends on the objectives. But to dismiss advanced, well-thought-out measurement techniques and philosophies because they're not simple is a mistake. If measuring against the objectives you set for your effort is easy, congratulations. If it's not, then do the work necessary to get valid measurement.
Until next week...
Shel Holtz, vice president of new marketing for crayon and co-host of the For Immediate Release. Shel has nearly 30 years of experience in organizational communications. He is the author of four communications-related books, including "Blogging for Business" and is a regular on the communication speaking circuit. He is accredited by the International Association of Business Communicators, and is the recipient of five IABC international Gold Quill awards for communication excellence. In 2005, IABC named Shel a Fellow — the association's highest honor.
Posted by Shel Holtz
Of all my teachers at Christopher Columbus Junior High School in Canoga Park, California, one of the two I remember most vividly is Miss Chernowsky. She taught art. A tall, stern-looking woman who reminded me of Margaret Hamilton (who played the wicked witch of the west in "The Wizard of Oz"), Miss Chernowsky told me on the first day of class that she expected me to be trouble. I don't remember why, but I must have mouthed off or been disruptive or fallen asleep or something. In any case, I was terrified of Miss Chernowsky for a few days, until her instruction inspired me and I began turning in work that she liked. By the end of the semester, we were getting along fine.
The recollection of this tale is a long way of getting around to the idea that sometimes people get off on the wrong foot. In some cases, that leads to a lifetime of acrimony. Other times, these people have an opportunity to put the right foot forward and the acrimony becomes a distant memory.
Amanda Chapel and I got off on the wrong foot. Lately, though, we've had the opportunity to exchange several emails that have been congenial, friendly, and constructive. We've had a couple encounters in Second Life -- or, at least, our avatars have -- and that also has helped us find common ground. Now, Amanda has asked to lead an effort among PR professionals to author a "week in review" of Strumpette.
To be perfectly frank, I'm a bit worried about this. Not because Amanda, mind you, but because of my schedule. I've barely contributed to my own blog in the last few weeks. But I want to keep moving the best foot forward. So I'll do the best I can. I'll employ the guideline of brevity as a virtue and reach out to some of my colleagues who may want to contribute to the effort.
In any case, thanks, Amanda, for the opportunity.
Marketing Isn't PR
Two themes arose from my reading of the last week's worth of Strumpette posts, including those by Amanda and by guest columnists/bloggers. One is that the concept of public relations isn't very well understood. The other is that we in the profession usually have nobody but ourselves to blame for the perceptions ascribed to us.
Phil Hall was the first to cause my eyebrow to lift when I read his piece about the next level beyond product placement: Producing your own movie or TV show. Phil's right; this is old news. I remember long before I went to work for Mattel in the mid-1980s, my son was watching a half-hour animated TV series called "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe." I also knew Mattel produced toys of the same name. I assumed the TV series had spawned the toys until I read about the objections of an activist group that labeled the show a 30-minute commercial. It turns out Mattel was behind the series. At that point, I didn't care. My wife and I had already watched a couple episodes to make sure it was okay for our son. It was inoffensive and always made a valuable point for kids to learn. Whether the chicken came first or the egg didn't matter.
After joining Mattel, I found out this was a common practice in the toy industry. Remember Thundercats? Transformers? (That one's back as a big-budget special effects movie.)
So I'm right on board with just about everything Phil said, although I'm growing skeptical about the value of product placement. People are already getting inured to it. The problem I had with Phil's piece was right at the top, where he wrote, "It’s one thing to gain PR points via product placement..."
See, that's not PR. That's marketing. They're two different animals. You pay for product placement, just as you pay to have a 30-second spot aired or a double-truck advertising spread to be printed in a high-gloss magazine. You earn PR. In fact, my favorite definition of public relations comes from the Institute for Public Relations: "A deliberate, planned, and sustained effort to institute and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its publics."
The Blurring of the Lines
Here's the problem: Most of the firms that are considered public relations agencies are actually communications agencies. They have PR practices but they also have marketing practices along with a host of others, ranging from branding to promotions. As if that's not confusing enough, the line is blurring thanks to the advent of social media. The principles behind solid public relations aren't changing, but the methods used to achieve PR goals most certainly are. It's confusing as hell, and we, as a profession, aren't doing much to clear it up. That's why the recent idiocy in Boston with promotional light boards that looked like improvised explosive devices leading to traffic snarls and public panic was dubbed a "PR stunt."
It also doesn't help our reputation when we behave in ethically challenged ways. It doesn't matter whether that behavior is born of timidity or the quest for a buck. It all leads down the same path.
Ethics Above All
Amanda wrote about 5WPR winning the "Girls Gone Wild" account. I congratulate Ronn Torrosian for the win -- winning any account takes hard work and perseverance, and I'm sure he earned it. On the other hand, there are certain accounts I wouldn't touch with (as my British colleague Neville Hobson would say) with a barge pole. This is one of them. Tobacco companies are another. In a profession that knows better than any other that perception is reality, the perception is that we're happy to sell cancer and pornography as long as it helps us meet our billable hourly targets.
And in a profession that is so damned visible, it doesn't matter that plenty of agencies and practitioners honor codes that preclude their accepting such accounts. We're all painted with the same brush.
And Eric Dezenhall points out another PR behavior that doesn't help our image. We're too timid to suggest companies do the right thing, particularly when the right thing means simply apologizing. We use weasel words like "We regret any inconvenience your experience with our company may have caused you" instead of what we should say, which is, "What happened to you sucks and we're really, really sorry."
(Of course, the lawyers usually have a hand in this, noting that an apology can be construed as an admission of guilt which can lead to liability. Well, um, yeah. The question, though, is whether a human admission that we fucked up can produce goodwill and reputation worth far more than a payment costs. Well, thank God there's a profession with a reputation worse than ours.)
The Real Deal
None of which means that everybody views PR as something lower than a crack-dealing pedophile. I am sick and weary of hearing everybody parrot the complaint that management won't give PR a seat at the management table. It just ain't true. Plenty of senior PR practitioners have seats at plenty of management tables. Of course, they're not the ones doing the whining. They got to the management table by providing measurable value to their organizations and clients, by helping their clients and bosses sleep better at night, by genuinely (as the definition suggests) maintaining mutual understanding between an organization and its publics. Let's face it. If your idea of PR is cranking out a crappy press release with made-up executive quotes and no news just so your client can get a little ink, then you don't deserve a seat at the management table.
Okay, so that wasn't brief and I rambled. But I covered most of last week's Strumpette posts and I can summarize the whole mess this way:
The line between PR and other communication disciplines is blurring. It's up to public relations practitioners to know where to draw the line, to behave ethically, to counsel companies to do the right thing, and to use our skills and the tools available to us -- including the new ones in the social media space that aren't going anywhere -- to establish solid relationships with our publics, to contribute to bottom-line business goals, and to help our clients and bosses sleep better at night.
Until next week...
Shel Holtz, vice president of new marketing for crayon and co-host of the For Immediate Release. Shel has nearly 30 years of experience in organizational communications. He is the author of four communications-related books, including "Blogging for Business;” and is a regular on the communication speaking circuit. He is accredited by the International Association of Business Communicators, and is the recipient of five IABC international Gold Quill awards for communication excellence. In 2005, IABC named Shel a Fellow — the association's highest honor.
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