BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE SOME TIME? Pro bono PR, it sounds like a win-win relationship - well-meaning organization gets free services and agency has that warm, fuzzy feeling. But, as James S. Bourne discovers, it does have its pitfalls

The Council of Public Relations Firms has toyed with the idea of establishing a PR equivalent of the Ad Council to organize and encourage agencies to do pro bono work. But earlier this month it pulled the plug, deciding instead to teach PR to nonprofits at a series of seminars.

The Council of Public Relations Firms has toyed with the idea of establishing a PR equivalent of the Ad Council to organize and encourage agencies to do pro bono work. But earlier this month it pulled the plug, deciding instead to teach PR to nonprofits at a series of seminars.

The Council of Public Relations Firms has toyed with the idea of establishing a PR equivalent of the Ad Council to organize and encourage agencies to do pro bono work. But earlier this month it pulled the plug, deciding instead to teach PR to nonprofits at a series of seminars.

Pro bono PR work has never been officially promoted or required by the Council of PR, PRSA or the Arthur W. Page Society, although all have periodically made stabs at bringing together professional communicators and nonprofits in need. Before stepping down in December, former PRSA president Ray Gaulke estimated that he got half a dozen calls a month from organizations seeking pro bono help, for which he tried to find appropriate providers.

Some feel that establishing an official organization to oversee donation of core PR and communications skills would be an intrusion on their business.

The council itself hesitated.

'Like states' rights,' says Council president Jack Bergen, 'you need to let individual firms decide what their communities need.'

'It's a provocative subject that people should talk about,' says Kathy Savitt, president of MWW/Savitt in Seattle. 'But I would feel squeamish telling other companies how to run their business.'

Which is not to say that the PR industry is wanting when it comes to charity. To the contrary, pro bono is alive and well in the industry.

While the strong economy during much of the 1990s squeezed pro bono off some firms' agendas in favor of paying clients, it made other agencies more willing to share their good fortune.

'I've felt in this booming economy even greater pressure to give back, because things are so good,' says Savitt, who calls her firm's pro bono work 'creating value in communities where we do business.'

The notion of giving back is the most commonly cited reason for pro bono.

Also, many firms say pro bono clients are more appreciative of their work than paying clients, and pro bono often allows agencies to stretch creatively and attempt things they might not with client dollars on the line.

Some pro bono is so off the beaten track that it breaks the traditional PR mold. John Paluszek, president of Ketchum Public Affairs, once helped a Bronx community development organization spread the word about new services in a sector of New York's poorest borough. Press releases and other standard PR tactics were out of the question; Paluszek's group had to rely on person-to-person contact and recruit 'block captains,' through whom they disseminated information.

'Public relations at that level, with those challenges, is so different from what we do day-to-day,' Paluszek says. 'We had to invent ways to communicate with the community.'

John Beardsley, chairman and CEO of Padilla Speer Beardsley in Minneapolis, says his employees suggest all potential pro bono projects, and the firm selects those it can 'champion' - ones that dovetail with its professional strengths or corporate culture. One of the agency's specialties is hi-tech, so it helped publicize the Minnesota High Tech Association's exhibit at the state fair. And since almost two-thirds of the company's 105 employees are women, the firm took on the Domestic Abuse Project, developing a communications plan and training the project workers to do their own PR.

Pro bono can serve as an introduction to business and community sectors outside a firm's regular circles. 'Sometimes you'll take something because it gives you high visibility in the community, and allows you to do stellar work,' says Bob Schenkein, whose eponymous Denver firm donated strategic counsel and event planning to Denver's new aquarium, and helped rebrand Colorado Public Radio when it introduced a second signal.

Other firms, though, aren't sure they want to stain the purity of their pro bono efforts by turning them into networking tools. 'Anyone that does pro bono work thinking it's going to get them business is doing it for the wrong reason,' declares Arlene Katcher, partner at Katcher, Vaughn & Bailey in Nashville,TN. Her firm takes on two major and two to three smaller projects a year. The firm's 2000 pro bono work included a donation of about dollars 25,000 in services to a local family-counseling center.

Katcher is unaware of any pro bono by her firm that led to a paying account.

Gary Myers, president of Wisconsin-based Morgan & Myers, says his firm also does not pursue pro bono work in hopes of finding paying clients.

But, like Katcher's firm, he includes his bolder pro bono work in the Morgan&Myers portfolio, with which the firm pitches paying clients. 'We do pursue creative stuff we can turn around and use somewhere else,' he says.

Image healer

Some believe pro bono helps protect PR from itself. The discipline will probably never completely shake its spin-doctor image, but it has distanced itself somewhat from that dark alter ego. These days, PR's image is closer to that of the respectable CJ from The West Wing than the treacherous Sidney Falco, says Bergen, and more young people are considering careers in PR.

'Five years ago, it was very money-driven, very Wall-Street-driven,' he says of the career aspirations of the newly graduated. 'Social responsibility was not top of mind. But today's students are looking to go to work for companies that are contributing to society.'

If PR becomes known as an industry that gives back, Bergen reasons, it will be better able to compete with law, finance and other professions in attracting 'today's best and brightest.'

'It's a way to build the reputation of our profession,' agrees Schenkein, who says he would favor official pro bono endorsement by the industry's governing bodies. His firm's mission statement advocates pro bono. 'When we recruit people, we spend a lot of time talking with them about community service.'

Others see no parallel between good deeds and overhauling PR's image.

'Law firms are doing a lot of pro bono,' says Ron Rogers, CEO of Rogers & Associates in Los Angeles, which has a large pro bono practice. 'But, as an industry, lawyers still have a terrible reputation. The PR industry has such a credibility gap, and there's such a disparity in the quality of work being done. I think (firms) need to focus on their business first.

Pro bono is down on the list.'

Some seemingly worthy causes have been unsuccessful at drumming up interest from PR practitioners. Alvin Roselin, a consultant at the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) in New York, has been hoping for months to find an agency to write press releases and columns about the group in community papers, which he believes would attract more small businesses to SCORE's free consulting services. Some of those businesses, he reasons, might then be in a position to hire a PR firm.

So far, Roselin has had no luck finding a PR agency willing to volunteer its services. 'Everybody is very busy, and they don't have time for pro bono work,' he says.

Roselin, a former PR man himself, is not convinced the industry's governing bodies should more strongly encourage pro bono work. 'It would be hard for me to say that it should be so decreed,' he says. 'Professional organizations probably should develop stronger codes of conduct by suggesting - not requiring - some time given to pro bono work. I don't think it's at all possible to make it a requirement.'

In 1999, Rich Long, an instructor at Brigham Young University who spent 30 years working in communications at Dow and Weyerhaeuser, wrote an appeal in PR Tactics for agencies to help schools design crisis communications plans. Long argued that the Columbine massacre and other school shootings showed the need for schools to have informed spokespeople ready for emergencies.

But he has heard little of firms following up on his proposal.

'Typically I hear from the education community, validating what I said,' he reports. 'But they don't have money to hire anybody.'

He thinks the good economy has given agencies a full docket of paying clients, which might account for a lack of pro bono support. 'This is the hottest market I've ever seen,' Long says.

Taking a pass on pro bono

Not everyone, either on the client or agency side, is sold on the concept of giving away work. Ron Culp, SVP at Sears, Roebuck and a board member of the Arthur W. Page Society, has sought help from agencies in developing communications plans for arts and social services nonprofits he's involved with.

'Essentially, you get what you pay for,' says Culp, who thinks the agencies he found were simply too busy to adequately service pro bono accounts. Now his organizations 'bite the bullet' and pay for PR.

'We always end up happier with the outcome,' he says.

Patrice Tanaka says her New York firm, Patrice Tanaka & Co., took on pro bono clients for the first few years after it was founded in 1990.

But building a business proved incompatible with working for free.

'When there were deadlines for paying clients, pro bono clients were back-burnered,' says Tanaka. 'We constantly felt guilty about not being able to devote the time we felt they needed.'

Finally, Tanaka eliminated pro bono all together, replacing it with cause-related marketing, which has grown to about 15% of her firm's workload.

In one case, the agency paired longtime client Liz Claiborne with a nonprofit dedicated to fighting domestic violence and helped the two found an initiative that addresses the problem. Tanaka says cause-related work has somewhat, but not completely, satisfied her firm's desire to give back to society.

'We still struggle with wanting to do pro bono, and do it in a responsible way and not let anyone down,' she says.

Rogers says his firm has also pushed clients, such as AT&T, to take on charitable work. Conversely, clients have asked him - at times forcefully - to donate services to causes they're involved in. Rogers says he's complied as a favor to the clients.

Corporate pro bono is harder to measure. In-house communications departments at the biggest companies are as large as agencies, but they are less likely to act independently in donating core PR skills. More often, communications departments support overall company initiatives.

Procter & Gamble, well known for philanthropic efforts in the education and health arenas, put in-house PR at the service of a proposed property tax hike to benefit schools in its hometown of Cincinnati. The company's communications department created literature and surveyed public attitudes toward schools, which helped push the initiative through, says VP Carol Talbot.

Corporate communications employees in many companies do pro bono for their own pet causes - writing a press release here or sharing media tactics there - little of which is part of either corporate or department policy. Talbot says P&G wants to hear from employees about pro bono opportunities.

'We encourage volunteers to ask the company for support,' she says.

Bergen says the Council abandoned the idea of officially sponsoring pro bono because there is no guarantee that media would have validated the work with coverage. It has instead scheduled four seminars, starting in Washington, DC, in September and concluding in Los Angeles and San Francisco in November, where local agencies will train area nonprofits.

'Agencies are out there doing (pro bono), and I'm not sure people know it,' Bergen says. He wants the industry to be more widely recognized for having a heart.

Manning, Selvage & Lee CEO Lou Capozzi, who headed the committee that considered an organized pro bono effort, echoes Bergen's hope: 'My favorite definition of PR is, 'Do good and get credit for it.''


FIRMS: Choosing a pro bono account

- Make sure the nonprofit has a primary decision-maker

- Choose a nonprofit with a clear and well-defined focus. Your job is to raise awareness, not help the nonprofit make sense of itself

- Delineate at the outset the extent and limit of your responsibilities. Media relations does not mean event planning, nor does creating documents mean fund-raising calls

- Create a work plan for pro bono clients just as you would for paying accounts

- Don't bring aboard a pro bono account if its mission conflicts with your firm's values, principles or culture - or those of your clients

- Make sure your firm has enough time to devote to pro bono. If it doesn't, chances are the account will fall through the cracks, leading to frustration on both sides

- Make sure staff on the project are interested in it and committed to it. A poor match could result in discontent and resentment, as well as shoddy work, which could damage your firm's reputation

- If appropriate, allow staff to propose pro bono work rather than simply assigning it from the top down

- If you're going to do pro bono, make it something you believe in, rather than simply a professional commitment

NONPROFITS: Finding a pro bono PR provider

- Offer to pay the provider's expenses. If appropriate, suggest that it seek reduced charges from its vendors and suppliers, perhaps in exchange for some type of recognition

- Make sure you have an informed liaison to work with the provider

- Make sure the provider is one you'll be comfortable with ethically. Look at the firm's client list and consider its areas of specialty before signing on

- Get to know the people who will be working on your account. Just because the CEO brought your nonprofit aboard doesn't mean he or she will be active on the account

- Make sure both sides have a clear concept of expectations and responsibilities, so you don't find your account continually overlooked in favor of paying clients

- Examine a provider's motivation for accepting your account. Are they passionate about your ideals? Are they looking to 'practice' in a new area before taking on paying clients? Are they trying to look socially conscious by associating with you? If either of the latter two, can you live with that?

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in