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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Everything Shel says here is dead on.
Many folks are selling marketing services by calling it "public relations."
Public relations, like the blogosphere, is supposed to be about engaging in a two-way flow of information...like, uh, you know...a conversation?
It's not about manipulating the channels of communications by creating pretend "character blogs" or making believe that the CEO has a blog when it's really being written by the marketing department. PRSA even has a canon in its Code of Ethics and Professional Standards against corrupting the channels of communication. I wonder how many of the so-called "new media" experts out there who pay PRSA dues have even read the code.
We will continue to enjoy richly deserved disdain from audiences who are much smarter than the tactics some of our lesser colleagues have been employing.
There seems to be a descent back to the basest form of publicity of an earlier age, only with newer technology decorations on it, that says, in effect, "I don't care what they blog about me, as long as my name gets into the RSS feeds."
I think Shel makes some good points, but as an outsider I detect the corrosive presence of turf wars. Marketing isn't PR, but PR is very definitely a subset of marketing (or specifically of the promotion aspect of marketing) - that doesn't mean it's a lesser discipline. PR should not be comparing itself to or contrasting itself with anything - it should be focussed on proving and celebrating what it can achieve.
Outside of the celebrity arena, I'm not sure that PR has a worse reputation than it did before, but I would argue that the industry needs to acknowledge that it's part of marketing and that the changing media landscape is radically impacting on marketing as a whole and that everybody therein has to adapt to some new realities.
I would argue strongly that PR is NOT a subset of marketing. Marketing is designed to sell product while PR is designed to foster good relations between an organization and its publics, which include government (regulatory and legislative), local communities, activist groups and NGOs, business press, and investment community in addition to customers and consumers. There is definitely a need to coordinate between marketing and PR, but they are independent, serving independent goals.
Apologies for belated response Shel. Unsurprisingly I cannot agree with you.
PR textbooks will have a PR-centric definition of what PR is and isn't and a similar view of "marketing. But the trouble with all that is that marketing is more than just promotion and is definitely not limited to the commercial arena. It comprises everything that is involved in connecting two parties such that one meets the needs of the other. It is not a department and it pervades everything any organisation does ranging from creation all the way through to the aftermath of the "consumption" of said product/service/policy.
As such, anything that impacts the perception of that product/service/policy is a subset of marketing. It is an incredibly broad church and you will find no harsher critic of "marketing" than myself, that's what my blog is all about, but the solution lies in cohesiveness not separation. Just as everyone in an organisation has to understand its strategy or purpose, so must everyone also understand that pretty much everything they do is marketing.
I respectfully disagree with the definitions of PR cited here. PR is a marketing strategy designed to sell products, services, ideas and information to a target audience. This is achieved by means of the PR weapons kit, which taps into non-paid media and other strategies to reach a public (including experiential marketing, viral marketing, grassroots marketing and Net-based marketing).
In all of my years in PR, I never considered my work to be fostering good relations between my clients and its publics. I was in the business of building sales, sales leads, web traffic and reputations.
Also, you can achieve product placement without paying for it. I've seen it done and I actually did it once (albeit on a small scale). That's the power of great PR!
Phil, if that's what you were doing, you were working in marketing, regardless of what you or your organization may have called it. I suggest you pick up any of the 101 textbooks on PR -- by Cutlip, Seitel, any of 'em. The fact that marketing gets labeled as PR doesn't make it so.
Can't agree with you, Shel. The line between PR and other communication disciplines is not blurring -- it blurred ages ago, and in many creative organizations it overlapped into a new, different and very effective approach to the subject.
That's one reason why I wrote "The New PR" -- I never found any PR textbook to acknowledge today's PR as something vibrant and modern. The antiquated IPR-inspired view of the profession is one for the history books.
Shel, the Thundercats were vile. Lion-O's sword was a phallic fantasy, to say the least.
You're right about the effectiveness of the marketing, which now includes Mattel's venture into CGI direct-to-DVD movies. The first couple were well-produced musicals and decent to watch. The latest, "Barbie in the Twelve Dancing Princesses," was astonishingly enough released at the same time that Mattel rolled out twelve new dolls. And wouldn't you know that out of 12 Princesses, no two of them look alike.
My wife and I are bracing for the latest installment, "Barbie and the 49 Brilliant Marketing Executives."
RE: the definition of PR vs. marketing, having had some hand in both, I would not call PR a subset of marketing, but a very closely related cousin (one that would produce mutants if they got too intimate with each other).
I suggest that in larger organizations (those large enough to have separate departments that is) you see the same differences between PR and Marketing that you see between Marketing and Sales. If they don't coordinate and get along, they torpedo the value of each other's programs.