COMMENT: Editorial - An open letter to The Wall Street Journal's advertising reporters

Dear Vanessa O'Connell and Stephanie Paterik,

Dear Vanessa O'Connell and Stephanie Paterik,

At least your estimable organ, The Wall Street Journal, has the insight and courage to report on PR for what it is, a multibillion-dollar industry, rather than covering it only in haughty, dismissive, passing terms like many other supposedly objective journals. For this you're to be congratulated - although, of course, we can't hide our disappointment that you use the slug "advertising on these stories.

But your piece on the front of last Monday's Marketplace section, headlined "PR Firms Get Into Advising On Governance, took a largely unfair "build 'em up, then shoot 'em down angle.

In claiming that PR firms are suddenly offering corporate governance, you are misstating the case. Perhaps you have fallen foul of the overstatements of one or two individuals within the industry - granted this business has historically had a habit of undermining itself by overclaiming - or perhaps you're persisting in the idea that all PR pros want only to fool a journalist with exaggerated claims.

It is true, a select band of top-level corporate communicators, public affairs officers, and, occasionally, even senior agency pros have been asked for and offered advice on issues key to a company's reputation, such as the levels of transparency it demonstrates in its communication with investors and employees, and the ways it can earn greater trust with these important audiences. But most of them have been tackling these issues for quite some time now.

In this respect, the latest crisis of confidence is surely an opportunity for PR to elevate its status, and perhaps even increase its budget allocation in places - but only because some of the field's best have invested considerable sums on research in this area, and have many years' experience in counseling on these issues, not just because - as you seem to suggest - their revenues are down in other areas.

Few firms, if any, will pretend to have a catch-all prescription for healthy corporate governance, but some - like Hill & Knowlton and a few others that eluded your radar - do have experience of listening to investors, employees, and customers, and knowing what they see as good ways to run a company.

They also have experience of sharing this knowledge with senior execs, and they know how to communicate good standards or an improvement in standards to the investing public. (Lord knows the market needs tales of honesty and ethics right now.)

Are the majority of PR agencies offering this expertise? No. Are the firms moving young media relations execs with no knowledge of these issues into new corporate governance departments? No. Your piece gives the impression that this is some kind of seismic shift. It isn't. It's a case of some experts in these issues who work within the, admittedly, vague bounds of our industry - and don't often talk about their work - being in greater demand than ever.

You call on a professor of governance and a money manager for their opinions.

Both shoot down the idea of PR firms advising on governance, suggesting this isn't about publicity or spin. They're right, it's not. But then neither is the work executed by the PR pros in question. Your experts' notions of what the industry does is outmoded and gives little credit to those communicators who battle for honesty and transparency in their companies - and have done so since long before Enron was a dirty word.

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