FOCUS: PR takes the stand

Many PR professionals still feel there is a need to defend their industry.

Many PR professionals still feel there is a need to defend their industry.

Asked why the PR profession still suffers from an image problem, many blame Hollywood. Movies frequently embrace a hackneyed image of PR pros, based more on the publicist model than on the PR professionals that are featured weekly in this magazine. The Sweet Smell of Success' slimy "press agent" Sidney Falco, who famously noted, "I never thought I'd make a nickel on some guy's integrity," is a prime example of that ilk. As broad and unrealistic as Falco and other portraits may seem, including the one found in the recent movie Phone Booth, many in communications find them offensive and upsetting. "The media brings out these old stereotypes all the time," says Tom Gable, CEO of GCS Public Relations. "In the movies, the PR person is usually characterized as being a shallow hype-meister, a heavy drinking schmoozer who is always kissing up to everybody. There are a lot of stereotypes like that one that we are sensitive to." Many in PR struggle to describe their profession, and end up pointing to non-representative examples. "We all know what we do and what our roles are, but we can't really describe or discuss it in a way that people understand," says Christian Reese, senior communications consultant for HealthPartners Corporate Communications. "We end up pointing to a person like [former White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer to explain it." The serious issue at the heart of the PR industry's reputation is not Hollywood's view of the professional communicator, but how some stereotypes of PR can negatively impact the ability of the profession to recruit top talent, and communicate its value to in-house executives and clients. This is an industry that takes seriously its role in enhancing not only reputation, but also performance, of businesses in the US and around the world. If the image of the industry still reduces its contribution to merely press releases or parties, it can be demoralizing, particularly when those communicators are hanging in there with their companies and clients, riding out tough economic and political times. "I take a lot of pride in this profession," says Dave Samson, VP of international PR for Oracle. "I get frustrated when I see tired, worn-out ideas of what PR is." Samson adds that the responsibility for banishing negative perceptions belongs to those actively engaged in the industry. "We have an obligation to change the view of our profession. More and more, there are people that really get it rising to the senior roles inside agencies and corporations." Time and again, the somewhat hackneyed phrase "a seat at the table" is used to describe the ideal positioning of PR counsel in an organization at the highest levels. But while many believe the question of C-suite access is crucial, at least one top agency CEO recently told PRWeek that the whole conversation is out of date. We already have a seat at the table, they maintain, and the subject is moot. Still, in a world where "flack" and "spin" turn up repeatedly, even in such august business publications as The Wall Street Journal, the PR industry can be forgiven for feeling that the business community still needs to be educated about its relevance. Following are some examples of stereotypes that stick, both the empty canards and the ones that have a grain of truth, including a verdict on each one's staying power. ----- 1. PR has no impact on a company's business objectives The idea that PR operates in a cost-center silo, far removed from the overarching goals of a corporation, is over for many companies. "Verisign's corporate communications team has only two primary purposes," explains Tom Galvin, VP of public affairs. "The first is to enhance and sometimes protect the company's reputation. The second, just as important, is to be a weapon that the lines of businesses can use to expand their markets and generate new revenues. That is what we do. That is our mission in life." Even at its most basic level, savvy CEOs know that stakeholder perception of the company, its leadership, brand, employee relations, and community involvement, can be a major indicator of future performance. But beyond reputation, more and more communicators are engaging in many aspects of the business. "PR is marketing-approved, sales-oriented," explains Robert Gelphman, principal of Gelphman Associates. "Contribution to the top line is paramount and the reason for our existence. I have clients, current and former, who can attest to sales and revenue generation, account retention, relationship and partnership building, and other equally important corporate objectives." As the industry continues to strive for better metrics and greater accountability, this will become even clearer. Verdict: An old-fashioned view of PR that no smart company embraces ----- 2. Whenever a company hires an agency, it is trying to hide something Putting to one side the whole consumer marketing aspect of agency business, which has nothing to do with crisis or obfuscation, the notion that companies are hiring PR firms to hide the truth is patently ridiculous. That is not to say that companies will not frequently turn to outside counsel, beyond their day-to-day PR support, when facing a crisis. But PR agencies, accustomed to counseling clients during these stressful times, will have an expertise that the in-house PR professional may not have. Real crisis in corporate America is actually quite rare. It makes sense to bring in seasoned heads to help the senior executives navigate it. "It is true that PR professionals are sought out when companies are faced with crisis," says Peter Himler, MD of Burson-Marsteller's corporate/ financial practice. "After all, it is especially vital in times of crisis to ensure that lines of communications are quickly established with a company's key stakeholders." News of some corporate crises never even reach the newspapers, particularly when the problems are isolated to the affected parties. But a PR agency or in-house pro will jeopardize their own image when engaging in a nefarious practice at the behest of a client or executive. "Reputable PR firms will resign a client if they are asked to distort the facts or knowingly deceive," Himler says. Verdict: False. The goal of agencies is to help companies do the right thing ----- 3. PR is not an exact science, and therefore can not be meaningfully measured PR always could be measured. The recent question of measurement has come from challenging the value of the metrics being used, and the fact that, unlike advertising, the industry has never had a consistent, standardized system. Clipbooks, once the staple of proving PR performance, are now derided as relics of the past. The industry now seeks to measure its contribution not with a ruler or scale, but with proof that the way messages are disseminated and rechanneled in media coverage actually does have an impact on the business. Now with the advent of measurement tools such as Biz360's Market360, Cymfony's Brand Dashboard, and a host of proprietary systems developed by PR firms, there are many ways to measure and, more importantly, evaluate media placements. Moreover, both in-house communicators and agencies are working harder to develop strategic plans that connect directly to the company's overall business goals. Half the battle, after all, is knowing what to measure in the first place. Still, there is much work to do on the topic of measurement. Though the most sophisticated companies are investing in metrics, it needs to become part of all PR budgets so that accountability is the watchword of every program. Verdict: Clearly untrue, but there is still work to be done to prove it ----- 4. PR professionals do not understand business, and CEOs do not understand the value of communications Putting these two perceptions together was no accident, as they are inextricably linked. The more PR professionals demonstrate their comprehension of business and finance, the better they will speak the language of the CEOs, and the more highly regarded the PR perspective will be. Fortunately, the industry is taking up this challenge, implementing business-oriented training programs, working harder than ever to recruit MBAs and others from non-communications backgrounds, and embracing the demands of business, which include accountability at all levels, more robustly than ever. The good news is that communicators are operating from a position of strength in many companies, where the contribution of PR is considered crucial. Now the onus is on professionals to make sure they are up to the challenge that high expectation creates. "The view of PR inside of companies has grown in a positive way," maintains Oracle's Samson. "Though what people question now is whether people in the profession have the skills that are required to address the importance of that function." Verdict: Changing rapidly, but there is still progress to be made ----- 5. Media relations is absolutely the core of what PR people do for a living Over the past few years, it has become trendy for senior PR professionals, particularly on the agency side, to distance themselves from media relations and regard it as tactical and superficial, as Magnet CEO David Kratz recently wrote in PRWeek. But the client advisory committee of the Council of Public Relations Firms, during its biannual meetings with key corporate communicators, found that most believed that media relations is the most important service a PR agency can provide. However, when asked to grade the ability of agencies in this area, the clients only gave firms a C+. Some believe that too many inexperienced people are left to handle press relationships, which causes its own very real reputation problem for the PR industry among one of its key constituencies. In-house communicators are the link between their companies and the media, and have never downplayed that role. Knowing how to work with the media, and helping your in-house and external clients understand the importance and influence of the media, is an essential part of the PR professional's remit. "Whether it is crisis communications, marketing or public affairs, the media component is a key pressure point that PR people uniquely understand and know how to address," says Tim O'Brien, principal of O'Brien Communications. Verdict: Fair, and not really negative ----- 6. PR people are shallow, exploitative, and more interested in promoting themselves than their clients Straight from the playbook of Sidney Falco, this stereotype seems broad, but is surprisingly resilient. Perhaps it is no surprise that some may still believe this to be true. Sure, corporate executives know that PR professionals are not universally shallow, and that the majority are interested primarily in the interests of their clients and stakeholders above all else. But there is a serious side to this perception. How does this image impact the decision-making of an MBA candidate who is deciding between joining a PR firm and a management consultancy? How can the profession advance if it fails to attract them? Arguably the most famous PR person in the country is Lizzie Grubman, a publicist more famous for her tangles with the law and celebrity friends than she is for any campaign. "This is a popular misconception that the media and Hollywood portray," says Steve Cody, managing partner and cofounder of Peppercom. "As communications professionals, we need to step up. We've done a poor job of explaining the Lizzie Grubmans of the world." PRSA and the Council of Public Relations Firms say they are working to counter the stereotype through advocacy, professional education, and speaking to groups outside the profession. Verdict: Ridiculous, but still prevalent in the popular media ----- 7. Communicators routinely lie to the media, investors, employees, and other stakeholders Lying is never a good PR strategy. "Not only is it unethical, but it's grounds for immediate termination in my firm," says Robert Oltmanns, president of Skutski & Oltmanns. "I know I'm not alone. Lying in any shape or form to any audience under any circumstances is not permitted, and to my knowledge, in my own firm, has never occurred." The PR associations also have codes of ethics that clearly denounce any form of lying, but the media will seize upon companies caught hiding something. Sometimes the communicator is at the mercy of what information is available to them, and from what source. In the public's eyes, it just doesn't matter. No question, there are a few PR professionals out there who will lie, just as there are lying politicians, reporters, doctors, and police officials, each of whom has a responsibility to the public trust, and who also face their own credibility problem over this issue. PR professionals, who are sometimes called "paid liars" in the media, still need to hold up their best examples of ethical practices in order to prove that a PR person who tells fibs is the exception rather than the rule. Verdict: Truth is the ideal, but constant vigilance is needed to preserve it ----- 8. PR is basically tactical. If you want strategy, you have to go elsewhere Good tactical execution is nothing to sneer at, and many PR firms pride themselves not just on their strategic thinking, but their ability to write winning press releases, organize successful events, and execute a campaign across regions. But in-house communicators and agencies also want to be known for their strategic capabilities. Increasingly tying their efforts to business objectives has helped many PR professionals advance their strategic perspective, but it is not universally sought. Management consultants are the antithesis of this, considered highly strategic, but lacking the ability to implement their ideas. PR professionals understand the value of both tactical and strategic expertise, and many maintain the communicator is uniquely placed to deliver on both expectations. One way the industry is advancing that agenda is by increasingly embracing research-based programs. The heightened scrutiny that corporate America is under may lend itself to greater high-level input by communicators. "In an age of business accountability, we must become more strategic in our ability to plan as well as organize," says Marc Whitt, associate VP for PR and marketing at Eastern Kentucky University. "To see the big picture and move forward with that." Verdict: Still lingering, though less so as PR aligns with business objectives ----- 9. Journalists identify and generate news; PR just supports that process Journalists and PR professionals each have a role to play in the news process. Particularly in today's hectic newsrooms, where reporters are juggling many beats, a targeted pitch on a newsworthy topic will sometimes become a great story. For example, Paul Fucito, media-relations specialist for the George Washington University Law School, has been promoting one of the school's faculty members who has been in the headlines for suing fast-food companies. "It's a major news story now," Fucito says. "But it began by promoting the story to the press, not supporting the process." Others show signs of frustration at this perception, even as their efforts are filling up news pages. "I have written articles for publication about my organization and its accomplishments, when editorial or journalistic contacts were simply too damn lazy to do the reporting footwork themselves," says Patrick Berzinski, associate director of media relations for Stevens Institute of Technology. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the image of the media as the gatekeeper of truth is one of the things that makes PR such a crucial function. Though sometimes adversarial, the relationship between communicators and the media is mutually sustaining. Verdict: A misguided, though forgivable, misconception ----- 10. "Publicist" is just another word for a PR professional, and there is no distinction between their roles Publicity, and by association publicists, denotes launch parties, media placements, red-carpet openings, and, well, Samantha on Sex and the City. When the general media quotes the head of a PR agency working with a corporate client on a crisis as a "publicist," the industry collectively cringes. "It is analogous to characterizing accounting as filling out tax returns," says Oltmanns. Not that publicity is entirely separate from the practice of PR. "It is just one of a variety of tools in the PR toolbox," says Himler. "For many people, however, it is the discipline that seems to define the practice of PR." Publicity is naturally connected to media relations, but not in the strategic sense. Many believe the PR industry needs to do a better job of recalibrating its image, and cite those wretched "cobbler's children" who have no shoes as a metaphor. But for a profession that is inextricably linked to influencing opinion among key stakeholders, its collective inability to banish some of these enduring stereotypes is frustrating. "We would like to get more respect, and we are getting more respect from clients," maintains GCS' Gable. "All of us should be more aggressive in promoting our success stories." Verdict: Persistent, requiring better education on the part of the industry

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