When Timothy O'Brien wrote his piece on the PR industry for The New York Times last year, I spoke to him both on background and on the record during his reporting.
This was the highest-profile piece about PR that I'd had any role in since I became editor, and as soon as I hung up the phone with him, I thought to myself, "What the hell did I say?"
Not that I regretted my remarks to him, I just literally couldn't remember what they were. And though much of it was on background, we hadn't stipulated the exact terms for that, and I wasn't really sure what I might be quoted on, if anything.
The consequence of this mind-boggling anxiety was that I awoke at around 4am on Sunday morning, the day the story came out, to check the piece online. The only thing I did was search for my name. No hits. Thank you, God. Thank you, Mr. O'Brien. I went back to bed and enjoyed the rest of my blissful weekend of obscurity.
My relief had nothing to do with the tone of the story, or O'Brien's reporting, or the topics we were discussing, or anything like that. It was simply the relief of not being caught saying something that sounded stupid, inappropriate, or nonsensical in one of the world's biggest newspapers. Though I have written and opined about the value of openness with the media, I'd had few opportunities to test my nerve and leap into the void with a reporter on a topic that I truly cared about.
I imagine that there are many executives and clients who've had a similar experience to mine. We can ramble on about any number of topics off the record, but train a camera or a pointed reporter's question at us, and terror sets in.
The answer is media training and practice, of course. But I wonder how many PR professionals truly empathize with their executives' or clients' feelings about working with the media. Many times I hear from PR leaders, "I don't want to talk to the media. I want the focus to be on my company/ client/CEO."
While that point of view is understandable, it is rather like a shoe saleswoman eschewing the footwear sold in her store because she's saving them for customers. Would you really take her advice on which ones were the most comfortable?
Media-shy PR people are a common breed, but I hope their numbers are declining. It's not a matter of giving away trade secrets, but rather of engaging in public dialogue about relevant issues. If one can't discuss a client or company issue, then talk about general trends or experiences that might help others solve problems.
There's another important reason for PR leaders to be a bit bolder in their trade-media engagement. The profile of the profession is still tainted by a handful of glib, publicity-hungry practitioners who jump on every major media bandwagon out of pure self-interest. The cost of entry to the PR profession is lamentably low. The only counter to that is to raise the bar on thought leadership.