ANALYSIS: From Spitzer to Spears, PR shaped the stories of 2003

From SARS to Sarbanes-Oxley to Britney and Madonna locking lips, Melanie Shortman looks at how PR played a powerful role in the major events of 2003.

From SARS to Sarbanes-Oxley to Britney and Madonna locking lips, Melanie Shortman looks at how PR played a powerful role in the major events of 2003.

This will go down as the year that the US waged a dubiously justified war with Iraq, Governor Gray Davis was defeated in a recall election by an action-movie star, and a Presidential candidate from Vermont raised more money over the internet than his competitors did by using traditional methods. That was just politics. The year 2003 will be remembered for a lot of things. It was the year in which openly gay clergyman Gene Robinson was elected to the post of bishop in the Episcopal Church; a summer blackout left millions in the dark in the Northeast; and Madonna and Britney Spears shared an open-mouthed kiss on live TV. Michael Jackson joined the hordes of celebrities who've had their mug shots snapped when he was arrested on charges of child molestation, millions of readers bought into the secrets of The Da Vinci Code, and hotel heiress Paris Hilton was overexposed to the extreme. The mutual-fund industry took a hit when Eliot Spitzer exposed illegal trading practices, the New York Stock Exchange got slammed when the board revealed that CEO Dick Grasso was taking home $140 million, and the world saw tapes of Tyco ex-CEO Dennis Kozlowski's $2 million birthday bash for his wife. PR's pervasiveness Even if PR was not the driving force - although it might have been in the case of the Spears-Madonna lip lock - it certainly factored into every major story of the year. That was true whether the story was public affairs, grassroots marketing, a publicity stunt or, at the very least, media relations (not to say that it isn't a crucial function, of course). As this year's PRWeek Book of Lists shows, PR plunders and blunders reached every corner of our consciousness, from embedded reporters to Ben and Jen's wedding fallout to blogs on home computers. To supplement the Book of Lists, PRWeek asked four industry insiders with very different careers what the biggest PR stories and trends of the year were. It was a question that allowed them to focus on a diverse cross-section of stories. "My thinking went to the political side," says Helene Solomon, president and CEO of Boston-based firm Solomon McCown & Company, which specializes in public affairs, healthcare, and crisis. "President Bush tried to convince the American people of three things: that there were weapons in Iraq, that the war was over, and that the economy is on the upswing. But his management of images of the news really stands out for me, and it was capped with the image of the turkey in his Thanksgiving trip." Indeed, looking at the year in pictures, Bush's aircraft-landing PR stunt, his signing of the partial-birth abortion ban, and his trip to Iraq were all examples of the President's deliberate and skilled actions (whether or not they achieved the desired goals). "Among his advisors are people with broadcast backgrounds, setting up shots," Solomon says. "For a long time, people made sure that a shot was framed properly, with the right flags in the corners. But the imagery, use of it, and management of issues was really advanced." The other big political story was Democratic Presidential hopeful Howard Dean's fundraising and campaigning through grassroots methods such as internet marketing and arranging meetings through Meetup.com. "His use of the media and the internet, and a building of support in a groundswell built momentum in the media," says Solomon. "And that provoked media coverage of the mechanics. It's the field-of-dreams PR story of the year. It's textbook PR in a sense. I saw a picture of the stereotypical person from the 1980s counter-culture wearing a Dean sticker. You don't see imagery around the Dean campaign that's old and staid. He's covering all the bases. We have to believe that it's calculated." The biggest stories in the financial sector were the scandals surrounding two once highly regarded institutions: the NYSE and mutual funds. "One of the biggest stories of the year had to be the fall of Dick Grasso at the NYSE," says Andrew Merrill, global MD of Edelman's financial practice (he spent most of 2003 at Abernathy MacGregor Group). "This is a guy who, 12 months ago was widely revered as the face of the capital markets. He was a man who was viewed in the company of Rudy Giuliani as a hero of September 11 for resuming the activity of the markets, and in an incredibly short period went from that status to another executive who's out of a job because of compensation." Michael Busselen, technology practice head at Fleishman-Hillard, says, "The single biggest story was the incredible sense of disappointment that the average consumer has felt in how they were betrayed by the major players in mutual funds. It's cast a pall over all business. The bottom line is that some people will never be convinced that businesspeople are acting in anything but their best interests." Press plays a supporting role However, aggressive reporting is more directly affecting the roles of PR practitioners in the sector. The media is a stakeholder just as important and penetrating as the regulatory bodies themselves. "It's a continuation of the trend we saw last year of heavy investigative reporting, with the Spitzer and SEC probes being the catalyst," Merrill says. "Certainly, investigative financial reporters have gotten a lot smarter about how to pursue information. They're a lot quicker to get on the central issues. The prominent investigative reporters have gotten a lot smarter because they've had to." When communicating with financial clients, Sarbanes-Oxley had an enormous presence in practitioners' consciousness. "In general, spurred by Sarbanes-Oxley and increased presence, people continue to be concerned about governance, and those continue to be significant issues for corporations," says Merrill. "Firms like ours are increasingly brought in to opine on governance-related issues." In the tech space, Busselen says that the Oracle-PeopleSoft-J.D. Edwards trifecta held attention for a long time, but the industry spent most of its efforts on conserving energy and making a dollar stretch. "We took a big step backward. The industry took a big hit and PR took a big hit, but we are on the cusp of budgets coming back, and in line with that so many of our clients are managing cash burn and saving powder," he says. In healthcare, the biggest stories were about SARS; obesity; the sales of counterfeit, illegal, and legal drugs over the internet; and direct-to-consumer marketing, according to Peter Pitts, associate commissioner of external relations for the FDA. With so many issues at hand, the single biggest story to the FDA was the creation and implementation of a plan to serve as a guide for the future activity of the organization in an ever-changing and busy sector with a lot of public interest. "The FDA's interest is in how we can advance the public health rather than being straight regulators. Public health is too important to do things the same old way," Pitts says. In the mainstream media, gossip went mainstream, as former Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller took on the tabloids and made the celebrity news space even more competitive than it already was. After Bennifer's marriage plans fizzled, providing no payoff for the media's obsessive coverage, Britney and Madonna saved the day with their controversial public display of affection. After Britney's album debuted and critics were less than impressed, gossip target and celebutante Paris Hilton's sex video went public. "Mainstream publications are covering the same things that the gossip columns would, and it's expanded beyond People," says Solomon. However, the prevalence of celebrity scandal has bred a new PR figure: the celebrity attorney. After Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson found themselves facing charges of sexual assault and child molestation, respectively, lawyers set up widely publicized press conferences. "Look at Marv Albert and what I call the bad boys of sports, and I think it shows that attorneys have gotten more savvy. In these high-profile cases, they know exactly what they can do to manipulate the media, and the pack-journalism mentality of celebrity coverage is more fierce than ever," Solomon says.

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