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.
Thou Shalt Happily and Shamelessly Promote Thyself!
When I began my PR agency Open City Communications back in 1994, I had two ruling priorities: the promotion of my clients and the promotion of myself. Since modesty is not among my vices, the latter priority came without any degree of queasiness. And if I do say so, I was actually rather successful in spreading the word about little ol’ me.
I raise this bit of self-celebration because of something that always fascinated me: the fact PR people do such a terrible job in promoting themselves and their industry. Many PR people don’t believe that self-promotion should go beyond the realm of the industry’s trade journals, and even then it’s limited to the bare bones basics (a new personnel announcement, the winning of some award, perhaps signing a client). And that’s a major mistake, particular from the agency side of the industry.
Allow me to recall my self-promotion activities I did when I was running my own agency. Granted, this was a while ago (the agency closed in 2004), but you should be able to pick up old tricks and adapt them for today’s industry.
First, I always planned on a national level of exposure. Hey, why not? If you’re going to go, go big. It didn’t happen overnight, but with patience and planning it began to work.
My first bit of wide attention came when Business Start-Ups Magazine decided to do a feature on me. My pitch was solid (celebrating my first year in business) and out-of-the-ordinary (apparently few, if any, PR agencies ever tried to get themselves promoted in that magazine). Not only did I get a full-page spread (which my mother immediately framed and hung in a place of prominence in her home), but I subsequently leveraged that coverage for another feature in Business Start-Ups Magazine’s sister publication, Entrepreneur (again with a full-page spread). In both cases, I was able to establish friendly ties with the editors and journalists at the magazines and later tapped into those alliances to get killer coverage for my clients.
While this was going on, I made a point getting as much free-lance writing as I could where I could pontificate on all matters PR. One lucrative gig was a marketing column in the financial trade newspaper Credit Union News, while other writing gigs brought me into the pages of publications including Home Office Computing, Direct Marketing International and Association Trends.
In many ways, I had the field to myself – no one else in PR was actively (let alone aggressively) seeking out writing assignments for these publications. In some ways, I was an ambassador for PR, explaining the various ins-and-outs of a marketing discipline that was either alien or misunderstood to the publications’ readers. (And, yes, PR is a marketing discipline – we’ll address that issue in a future column!)
Simultaneously, I also made it a habit to write letters to the editor of major newspapers and magazines if there was a PR-related issue that deserved commentary. These little two-cent deposits were always suffixed by the tagline “Phil Hall is president of Open City Communications, a New York public relations agency.” (Believe it or else, people do read letters to the editor – I’ve gotten a ton of feedback over the years on those mini-missives.)
So what was the result of all of this outreach? Well, for starters I had a killer portfolio that impressed the companies I was trying to pitch. Prospective clients could (1) see that I could write, (2) see that I could get the attention of general business and trade media, and (3) see that I was a “national” expert on the subject of PR. The media also paid attention, as I subsequently wound up being quoted in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and on the Voice of America, among other places. And, damn it, that strategy worked wonderfully for years (I’d probably still be running my own PR agency if the dot-com bubble’s bursting and the tag-team devastation from 9/11 and the 2001 recession didn’t drive most of my clients out of business).
One place where I never bothered to promote myself, however, was in the PR industry trade journals. I was the subject of a mini-profile in PR Week, but I only did that for shits-and-giggles. To be perfectly rude, the industry’s trade journals have no value beyond the industry (whether they have any value within the industry would make for a wonderfully violent debate, but we’ll leave that for another time), and they won’t impress anyone in the outside world as proof that you know what you’re doing. Really, if I was chasing after tech clients, there would be more value to my pitch if I could show myself being featured as a PR tech expert in a software industry magazine versus being in the spotlight of a PR rag.
Now, obviously, this adventure is strictly from the agency side of things. For those in corporate communications or public affairs, the ability to shamelessly call attention to oneself is more restricted. But that is not to say it isn’t impossible. I would love to detail how that can be done, but it appears I’ve reached the end of my allotted bandwidth for this week. Hold the thought and we’ll continue next time!
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
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