How to persuade The New York Times that PR is not about spin

The Times' recent characterization of PR as being predicated on spin and propaganda missed the point of the Council of PR Firms' rebrand.

It was business as usual over at New York Times HQ on Thursday as The Gray Lady took one of its intermittent stabs at covering the world of public relations.

As usual, longtime advertising correspondent Stuart Elliott stuck the knife in, characterizing the rebranding of industry trade group the Council of Public Relations Firms in the lede as "spin specialists… hoping to do some spinning on their own behalf."

No surprise there. That’s Stuart’s M.O. And, honestly, that’s still the M.O. on most occasions when PR comes onto the radar of mainstream national media. There is still a fundamental misunderstanding of what the industry is about, and an almost childlike glee in making mischief when covering it.

PR is typically cast as a profession of "spinners" seeking to foist "propaganda" on unsuspecting publics and to hoodwink them into doing things they don’t want to. It is part of the reporter/PR media relations dynamic that traditionally plays out daily in newsrooms and colors journalists’ views of the whole profession.

While some firms are already making great inroads, in general council members are desperate to broaden their outreach to CMOs, who as PRWeek readers already know are increasingly becoming more important clients for PR agencies due to the convergence of communications around integrated paid, earned, shared, and owned media.

The trade body engaged in some "soul searching" for a year, hired a branding agency, did some market research, changed its logo, and adopted a new informal name: PR Council.

"The market has come to us," said the council’s president Kathy Cripps at its annual dinner on Wednesday evening. "The industry as a whole has to rebrand: Hence the new role for the council."

The council stopped short of dropping PR from its name, after the research showed clients still think of PR as a differentiator. Thank goodness for that, I say: PR goes way beyond simply marketing and communications.

By breaking bread with The Times, the council presumably hoped to lift this reform agenda higher onto the national consciousness at such a prescient time for the industry. After all, The Times is still the high watermark of media placement and coverage automatically elevates a story in its exposure.

What resulted was a depressingly familiar list of clichés about the PR profession. Elliott rightly pointed out that PR aims "to influence the directions of conversations and, ultimately, consumer behavior," but he sees those aims as completely at odds with "authenticity and transparency" and being "honest and spin-free."

In my blog last week I attempted to bust a few myths about PR myself. And, from the reactions I have had, many of you agree with me that the rush to embrace marketing and completely abandon associations with media relations on the new altar of social media, content marketing, and paid advertising is maybe a little premature.

In fact, one high-profile agency CEO I spoke to this week admitted his firm recently lost out in a pitch because it overdid the digital and social piece in its presentation when what the prospective client really wanted was savvy and effective media relations.

And the council’s Critical Issues Forum on Thursday, while it very much focused on progressive topics such as data, new influencers, neuromarketing, and disruption, still reached conclusions highlighting the enduring power of mainstream media to spread messages and drive exposure.

The Arthur W. Page Society, the industry body for chief communications officers, met recently and doubled down on the topic of "authentic advocacy," the type of concept and engagement national media can’t seem to get their head around.

It analyzed how five leading companies are redefining stakeholder engagement through corporate character to generate that authentic advocacy.

No doubt the CCO community needs to modernize its mission also, especially in evolving its role in engaging CMOs and other parts of the C-suite. But there are some enduring truths in their mission that are as important now as they have ever been.

At the council dinner on Wednesday, the outgoing chair, FleishmanHillard CEO Dave Senay, exhorted the assembled audience to adopt some "swagger" and get on the front foot in the way it presents itself. No longer should PR folks be the needy children pressing their noses up against the window while their advertising colleagues party inside.

This could be a noble ambition for an industry that reveals its insecurities annually when the Cannes Festival of Creativity comes around, bemoaning its lack of success in its own awards category (the PR Lions) and engaging in a lot of ritual navel gazing about why that is.

Look up the definition of swagger and you’ll see it means to "walk or behave in a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive way." Now this was an agency industry event and the objective was to rouse the troops to seize the opportunities ahead. But there were at least a few CCOs in the room as well, and I wonder what they thought about the hubris on display.

Let’s be confident in what we do, by all means. Let’s embrace the new opportunities that are being presented by the new marketing landscape, within which the market has indeed "come to us."

But, at the same time, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, alienate our core constituencies, and forget some of the enduring principles of effective public relations that are as relevant now as they have always been.

As the message that the council was trying to communicate via The Times states: It’s all about the singular strength of PR. And that’s a manifesto we can all sign up to.

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