Posted by Shel Holtz
What started with a bang wound up being a slower-than-usual week at Strumpette. Mostly I found myself agreeing with much of what appeared here, then adding my own observations. But the opening salvo on Monday, "PR: The Lying Profession," definitely had my hackles up. The lying profession? Please. As I've noted so often -- and recently in this column -- I know hundreds of people who work honorably in this profession. They toil without the spotlight shining on them specifically because they do NOT lie; in fact, they are committed to the truth. And who, in this era of like-it-or-not transparency, believes they can get away with a lie anyway? I can point to a dozen examples in the last year or so of attempts to bullshit the public that boomeranged on the perpetrator.
I agree entirely with Trevor Cook's comment suggesting that every profession has its blackguards, and PR is no exception. Amanda disagrees, launching her dispute with this: "How many PR contracts today are about servicing the media with straightforward information?" I put my head in my hands when I read this, since it reinforces a completely ridiculous notion that PR is, above all, media relations. This is the misperception beyond which we can't seem to budge an inch, yet most of the practice of public relations has little, if anything, to do with media. So, as a public service for all those who would comment on PR without knowing what the hell it is we do, I offer this review of public relations planning direct from the still-relevant "Excellence in Public Relations and Communications Management."
These PR planning steps are based on identification of an issue that can or has migrated from a stakeholder phase through the public phase and into a issues phase (issues are formed out of problems perceived by various publics). These efforts focus on different stakeholders or publics. Note that the media represent one channel for reaching only some of these groups only some of the time.
1. PR practitioners develop formal objectives such as communication, accuracy, understanding, agreement, and complementary behavior for its communication programs.
2. PR practitioners plan formal programs and campaigns to accomplish the objectives.
3. PR technicians implement the programs and campaigns.
4. PR evaluates the effectiveness of programs in meeting their objectives and in reducing the conflict (or preventing it) produced by the problems and issues that brought about the programs.
Nowhere in this simple process do the words "send a press release" or "contact media" appear. Media relations is a tactic, not a strategy, which leads to the lion's share of PR efforts (admittedly not those that get the most attention because they're not, um, in the press) having nothing whatsoever to do with publicity. Entry-level practitioners are generally those doing media relations while senior people engage in problem and constraint recognition, boundary spanning, environmental scanning, and other principles of PR that don't get discussed in forums like this.
I've always liked what PR professor James Grunig wrote: "...(strategically practiced) public relations needs the media less than poor public relations does because the organization solves external problems before publics make issues out of them." Excellent PR, then, manages relationships between organizations and publics so media relations is not required.
As for Amanda's notion that PR has taken on more and more branding and product-oriented assignments, I would return to two earlier arguments:
-- So what? If their role in the assignment is based on a relationship -- a conversation, for example -- as opposed to an interruptive push of messages (which defines advertising and marketing), what difference does it make? And why is lying required to engage in such an assignment? Most people working today somehow manage to represent their clients without resorting to lies or distortions. Sadly, they ARE painted with the broad brush that covers those maggots of the profession who DO approach their tasks without an ethical compass.
-- I still argue most of these organizations are communications companies doing a variety of work that INCLUDES but is not LIMITED to public relations.
In any case, I dispute in the strongest possible terms the notion that dishonesty is systemic in PR. Shallow reporting by people who don't understand the business is more responsible for that perception than actual behaviors by the industry.
Amanda also attacks PR practitioners who can't write. On this point, we're in complete agreement, although I'd argue that this does not characterize the entire profession. Two problems are at work here. First, a lot of academic institutions teaching PR no longer require writing courses. That's downright absurd. Second, PR billables continue to climb, work continues to pour in (particularly as PR is shown to be more effective than advertising and marketing), and agencies are hiring like crazy. With a limited pool of talent well-schooled in the craft, many agencies take what they can get, including entry-level employees who couldn't string a subject, object, and verb together if their lives depended on it. Something definitely needs to be done about this.
As I suggested last week (and probably will again next week; I'm just resigned to it), the best we can do is produce the best, most ethical, most effective work we can. I cannot do anything about the reprobates in this (or any other) profession. But the more we shine the light on excellent work, the more it will become evident that this body of work far outweighs the more easily-attacked efforts of the minority that tarnishes every walk of life.
The rest of the week
Fortunately for my blood pressure, the rest of the week at Strumpette was fairly benign. I paid scant attention to the Strumpette-Bulldog Reporter flap, since Bulldog Reporter has never aspired to be much more than a source of information on media moves, pitch processes, and how-to's. It's actually pretty good at what it does and should stick to its knitting. There are other outlets that do a fine job of outing the bad guys in the profession. If every trade publication shifted its focus to that single dimension of the business, where would people go for the basics?
Why Jim Sinkinson put the moves on Strumpette is beyond me (although the word "co-opt" has found its way into my brain). Honestly; who cares?
John Bell's comments were right on the money. Two issues rose to the top of my mind as I read John's commentary. First, I don't buy the notion that traditional PR was about control. I'm not sure I know what "traditional" PR means. If it's the PR I saw practiced early in my career (the mid-1970's), then this is a mistaken notion; the people I watched addressing advocacy groups, NGO's, and other publics (yes, including the media) from my cube in the employee communications department were all about conversation, negotiation, and relationship building. It was not a one-way street. Of course, I know that a LOT of PR was focused on influence through means of persuasion that were not two-way in nature, so I know where John is coming from.
Second, I'm beginning to move away from the idea that the consumer owns the message. That's a theme that has emerged -- and that I have advocated -- over the last few years. Control certainly is moving away from organizations, but does that mean it is moving into the hands of some other force? Lately, I've become more and more convinced that NOBODY "controls" the message. The message is not controllable -- not by consumers, activists, companies, PR agencies, or anybody else. But PR is uniquely positioned to participate in this conversation, given that much of the profession's techniques are about engagement and dialogue anyway, compared to advertising and PR, which is about interruptions and one-way messaging.
Conversational (or "word of mouth") marketing, by the way, is pretty easy to define. Andy Sernovitz does a nice job of it in his book, "Word of Mouth Marketing:" "Giving people a reason to talk about your stuff and making it easier for that conversation to take place." The organization Andy heads, The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, defines it as "The art and science of building active, mutually beneficial consumer-to-consumer and consumer-to-marketer communications." Either one works for me.
I'm always amused, by the way, when someone suggests that word of mouth cannot be managed (which John did not). It cannot be CONTROLLED, but can most certain be managed. According to Ketchum Communications' 2006 Media Usage Survey, TV and newspapers wield far more influence (in the decisions made, opinions formed, or product chosen) than any other channels, notably any of the new media tools like blogs, podcasts, and social networking sites.
Anyway, as my friend Brian Solis noted in a comment to John's post, "your summary nails it."
The Captivating Caption Contest warrants no commentary on my part. Congratulations on the creative entries and kudos to TWL for donating its winnings to the Komen group (my wife regularly participates in their walks and I regularly pledge money to many of my friends who do the same in their home towns). That was genuinely a class act.
Finally, there was Phil Hall's contribution, and again, I don't have much to add to a commentary with which I largely agree. If PR agencies can't do a decent job of promoting themselves, why would anybody want to hire them to promote THEIR interests? The idea that we're somehow above self-promotion is absurd. That's where business comes from.
Phil's commentary also reminded me that agencies are rock-bottom lousy at other aspects of business, too. And not just PR agencies, but marketing, human resources, management consulting...the whole spectrum of the agency world. Employee recruiting-and-retention is one good example. What kind of practices are in place to reward and recognize talent, to engage employees, to become a most-desired place to work? What kind of training is available? In most agencies, the answer is an embarrassment. Many agencies do a great job for their clients and rake in decent profits. That doesn't make them good businesses.
With luck, next week will bring me more to argue with. Until then...
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.
What is Good Writing and Good Copy in New Marketing?
Shel Holtz wrote on Strumpette, "Amanda also attacks PR practitioners who can't write. On this point, we're in complete agreement" (and I take out of context). I responded, I think it is important to speak like the locals. I was...
Weblog: Chris Abraham - Because the Medium is the Message
Tracked: Mar 05, 08:35
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If the industry needs to address any criticisms of it, those are criticisms that are presumably based upon the perceptions of the tactical actions of the industry because it is the tactics that people see.
It would inform the debate if you could describe those tactics which do not involve the media for transmission. Specifically it would be interesting if you could expand on the actual mechanics of how "...(strategically practiced) public relations ..... solves external problems before publics make issues out of them."
"Problem and constraint recognition, boundary spanning, environmental scanning" may be principles of good PR, but they are not unique to PR. They are analytical methods employed in many spheres (inside and outside marketing) and not tactics per se. I am interested in understanding what it is that flows from them that is unique to PR?
Shel, thanks for the comments on my column!
I would like to go further on your comments regarding Human Resources -- to qualify for a job in Human Resources, you don't need a brain. You only need a pulse. I've never encountered a single Human Resources agency that employs anyone with even a smidgen of intelligence. And forget about the corporate world.
Actually, I might do my next column on the subject. Thanks again, Shel -- you are truly an inspiration!
Phil, you are completely wrong.
Human Resources staffers cannot, by definition, have a pulse.
That would imply they had a heart.
Oh, those poor HR people.
Having worked for two HR consulting firms, I'd have to say your assertion is largely true, Phil, but not universally. I've known a few positively brilliant people working in areas like defined compensation -- pension actuaries don't get to bill $500 for nothing. (You do know what an actuary is, don't you? Somebody who didn't have enough personality to be an accountant. Okay, that's not fair -- consulting actuaries do need a personality.)
And I've known some dedicated, hard-working, smart HR people in the corporate world, too. They got into the field in order to help their employers become desired places to work. Mostly they get ground under the heel of the company, though, buried in administrivia, never able to practice the skills they learned and hoped to bring to their companies.
Still, one of the smartest people I've ever met was in charge of OD in the HR department at a Fortune 500 company.
"Amanda also attacks PR practitioners who can't write. On this point, we're in complete agreement"
I think it is important to speak like the locals. I was told, during my short stint at Big Agency, to keep it 7th grade reading ease. I think that is a good point-of-reference. Here is what I wrote with regards new PR:
"Every community has its own tone, its own voice, and its own way of communicating. Traditionally, gamer sites are rude and sarcastic, backpacker sites are young, liberal and well-educated, tourism sites are older and square, and drinking sites can be cheeky. In order to be most effective in every community in which you message, it is important to get a sense of the way people talk to each other, and talking that way while still maintaining your authenticity." Via Talk Like the Locals, http://cabraham.com/ideas/talk-like-the-locals
Well-written, scholarly, transcendent, and writerly copy isn't the answer: clear, concise, and targeted is key. In the beltway, one needs to speak wonk, in the Valley, one needs to speak geek, and in Langley, one needs speak spook.
Snark to gamers, slogans to alcoholics, and Umbuntu to diggers.
If we base the beauty of our tongue on some sort of objective measure -- say the New Yorker -- then we will be perceived as insufferable and inaccessible as poor little Gore and Kerry were back in 2000 and 2004.
So, what is good writing? How is it defined? Am going back now to read the rest. Brilliant work, Shel!
The remark about "traditional" PR and it always being 2-way, conversational, etc.-- Spot on in my book-- the more I see this "blogger relations" and "social media" PR being talked about, the more I realize that this new awareness is awakening thoughts in us that should have been there all the time, regardless of "social" media. In other words, it's not new, it's still PR, and blogs etc. may be nudging us into doing things we should have been doing anyway.
"The lying profession? Please. As I've noted so often -- and recently in this column -- I know hundreds of people who work honorably in this profession. They toil without the spotlight shining on them specifically because they do NOT lie; in fact, they are committed to the truth. And who, in this era of like-it-or-not transparency, believes they can get away with a lie anyway? I can point to a dozen examples in the last year or so of attempts to bullshit the public that boomeranged on the perpetrator."
I feel the same way about the reputation of the defense attorney. "How the hell can you represent him? He's a murderer! He's a rapist! He's a scum! Well, the problem is is that since the PR profession is, in a lot of ways, a neutral solution, PR tends to begin to pick up the tastes, the coloring, and the aroma of the additive, the client. Most attorneys wish that they could "cherry pick" their clients and so do most advertisers and PR professionals. I hear, all the time, that taking on so-and-so a client would be bad for brand and I am appalled by that. My friends over a TickleKitty, a sex shop, need New Media Marketing and WOM PR as well, but lots of folks are either too uptight, too puritanical, or too judgmental (or too attached and afraid so as to have lost some requisites: shamelessness and fearlessness, a competitive advantage in an industry that is afraid of its collective shadow). What I love about Edelman and their respective practice heads and VPs+ is that they're pretty shameless (though they don't quite have fearless under control and their hubris and arrogance is off the charts).
So, since PR is itself so neutral -- some call it shape-shifting or chameleon-like (there is no there there) then we take a lot of the brunt for the actions of the client. We suffer for the sins of the father...
Your logic is flawed at the outset. The key word is "neutrality." We sell belief in things we do NOT necessarily believe in or are even believable. By definition, that's a lie.
Good people doing an honest days work promoting lies... does not make it true. You not knowing the difference between right and wrong doesn't make stealing a car okay.
When you are a neutral solution, you don't lie, you just pass through client message. That is like saying that it is the amp that is tone deaf and not the singer! It is like saying that the defense attorney is guilty and not the alleged perp, and it like saying that one should blame the soldier and not the war.
Neutral pass through? Who are you trying to kid? We are "active" participants. We are the lookout thugs and getaway drivers. You think Torossian pitching porn for Joe Francis is neutral?
Again, the defense attorney excuse fails. It's not typical that the attorney assist in the actual crime.