PROFILE: Spector's strategic approach undermines typical PR

Shelley Spector's Bernays-inspired beliefs drive her approach to working with clients, providing sophisticated-but realistic ideas. They also make her quick to criticize the PR industry.

Shelley Spector's Bernays-inspired beliefs drive her approach to working with clients, providing sophisticated-but realistic ideas. They also make her quick to criticize the PR industry.

Shelley Spector does not hesitate to criticize the PR profession. Much of her perspective is rooted in the principles of PR legend Edward Bernays, whose acquaintance she made in 1985. "Bernays created the field to be the way to tie the interests of the public with the interests of corporations or government," she says. "That's what he meant it to be. Many of the tens of thousands that came after him bastardized the profession to mean little more than media relations. It's a battle I've been fighting ever since." "Battle" is a word one might commonly associate with Spector in many contexts, though that perception is belied somewhat by her demeanor. Calm and friendly, she doesn't seem like the kind of person who would readily take on institutions and her own industry. But there is a definite evangelical streak in Spector that informs a lot of what she does, as well as her approach to client work. For example, Spector launched an online networking group in 2001 called the National Association of Independent PR Firms, believing that the needs and values of independents, like her own firm Spector & Associates, are different from those that are part of advertising holding companies. "I wanted to bring a voice to independent PR thinking that is not influenced by the profits of the big advertising conglomerates," she explains. "There is an inherent conflict of interest for advertising agencies to own PR firms." Spector is skeptical of the success of advertising-PR partnerships, but she may have a particular reason for taking that point of view. She once sued advertising firm Grafica when the agency terminated her firm from the New Jersey Lottery account. A jury awarded her a total of $82,500, and though she originally sued for $900,000, Spector still claims victory, saying, "The money was secondary." Grafica, in a statement issued at the time, said that the jury's decision to award the significantly lower amount, and only for part of the complaint, was proof that the jury was not convinced by Spector's claims of wrongful termination. Whatever the case, Spector says that ad agencies have a "skewed view of PR. There are ad people who think PR stands for 'press release.'" Another battle Spector has engaged in is on behalf of the business tenants of lower Manhattan like herself who were left in dire straits after September 11. In the summer of 2002, she launched the Downtown Business Network. "The help offered by the city was not help that would sustain a business and help it grow," she contends. The group is currently working with the city to enact a policy that would keep contracts located in lower Manhattan in the hands of local suppliers. In the mean time, she also runs a business, together with her husband, who handles all of the firm's graphic-design work. Her small firm, launched in 1991, has worked with such clients as AT&T, Bayer Corporation, and Philips Electronics, and has a total of 12 staff. The first account her firm won was Embassy Suites Hotels, after a family trip with small children gave her and her husband the idea that the chain needed childproof rooms for beleaguered parents. The idea took off, and the firm was born. One of her clients was Marilyn Laurie, who was formerly head of PR for AT&T, and now runs her own firm called Laurie Consulting. "Shelley did some work at AT&T on a telecommuting program that was exceptional," says Laurie. One of Spector's characteristic traits, she adds, is coming up with the big concepts, but with a practical component. "Unlike many PR people, she generates very big ideas, and she understands how to connect the strategy of the enterprise to it. She's exceptionally pragmatic about carrying that through." Spector is currently doing some work - on a personal-consulting basis - with HP on issues related to homeland-security marketing strategies and public positioning within government and industry. "She had ideas that were mind-boggling," says Washington, DC-based David Albritton, director of PR for HP. "She allowed us to think of HP and how to attach ourselves to the bigger issue, but not appear that we were trying to take advantage of a situation." He also says that Spector's ideas were rooted in reality. "They are actually achievable, and within the parameters of budget that we could match." She clearly has an orientation to action, Albritton adds. "It drives the behavior for the person she's dealing with," he explains. "If you have someone who is very passionate about something, it tends to drive the action a lot better." Passion for the profession was what led her to open the Museum of Public Relations. It is housed in her office (which is formerly John D. Rockefeller's office), and also has a presence on the internet. Bernays documents, which were given to her by his family after his death in 1995, dominate the collection. "This is pure PR," she says of the Bernays philosophy, which she is never likely to abandon. "This is the way it was meant to be." ----- Shelly Spector 1991-present Spector & Associates, founder and creative director 1989-1991 Gilbert Whitney Johns, executive director of PR 1987-1989 Ruder Finn, SVP, financial practice 1983-1987 Lobsenz Stevens, EVP 1981-1983 American Stock Exchange, public information assistant director 1979-81 Hill & Knowlton, SAE, financial practice

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