Monday, April 16, 2007

Longtime PRSA Member Advises Organization to Listen to Critics

The Public Relations Society of America continues to come under scrutiny over a governance structure that critics continue to say suppresses debate and dialogue on a number of issues vital to the profession.

In an article written for O'Dwyer's PR Report, Stuart Goldstein, managing director of corporate communications for Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. urged PRSA President Bill Murray to "fling the door open and embrace critics."

Goldstein faults the organization for requiring accreditation from the organization before allowing a member to serve on the group's leadership team. He also says the requirement restrains comments from corporate communications professionals who see the accredited public relations (APR) designation as irrelevant.

As many know, the PRSA has taken an aggressive stance against individuals that criticize its leadership practices, a practice that Goldstein says leads to an organization that's closed to new ideas and doesn't advance the profession. Goldstein's stance against PRSA practices goes back to 2003, when he wrote an article for the flagship Tactics publication that was delayed until someone was identified to write a rebuttal that appeared adjacent to his article.

I can't speak for other bloggers, but I know that one thing the PRSA is actually good at is finding articles or blog postings that are critical of its practices. What it doesn't do is quickly come out against practices that harm the profession. To look at a good contrast, one should examine the Legal Marketing Association, which adopted a lengthy position statement in opposition to new advertising rules formulated by New York ethics officials that greatly changed the way lawyers and law firms would be able to market themselves. The rules would have affected not only New York-based attorneys and firms, but also lawyers who were licensed to practice in the state, but based elsewhere in addition to satellite offices of firms headquartered in other states. In part because of that effort, the final versions of the rules that took effect early this year were much less stringent, resulting in a scenario that was much less cumbersome.

One of the major problems that PR faces in the opinion of myself and many seasoned pros is the negative attitude the profession holds. Sure, one could say there's not much you can do about that, and to a large extent that's true. But if PR had an organization that was a more aggressive advocate for the profession, it would likely bolster PR's overall reputation and make the industry better as a whole.

Hopefully that situation will improve, but until industry leaders are comfortable at debating the issues that threaten the profession, the prospect is dim.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Some Practices Never End

As some of you may know, my career includes nine years experience as a journalist at outlets ranging from small dailies to CNN Financial News. I've found that experience invaluable in my current role as a PR consultant, especially when it comes to having a good sense of what works and doesn't.

It's no secret that journalists and PR reps have an uneasy relationship; that exists for numerous reasons, but honestly, most of it is the fault of PR professionals who, when it gets right down to it, just do things to shoot themselves in the foot.

The latest example comes from Waggener Edstrom, which is one of several agencies that handle a piece of Microsoft's business. Waggener was working on behalf of Microsoft to schedule an interview with a Wired contributing editor, who was writing on a video blogging initiative the software giant was working on. In the course of that work, Waggener compiled what is commonly referred to as a briefing book for a Microsoft executive that consisted of previous stories from the editor, along with advice for the executive on how to handle the interview.

While this is a common practice done by PR firms, often at the behest of clients who are nervous about potentially being unprepared, what got Waggener attention it probably didn't want was additional information about the editor that would be involved in the interview. Fred Volgelstein, a contributing editor for Wired was described as "tricky" and someone who would make an effort to throw an interviewee off guard. They went as far as to say "It takes him a bit to get thoughts across, so try to be patient" -- not something that most people would find flattering. It ended by promising that Microsoft executives would have a chance to vet the article, something both sides deny was ever said.

You might wonder why this practice exists. If you were to ask a group of industry professionals, they would probably tell you that it's because they don't want the client to be put in a situation they didn't expect. And while that is part of it, a great deal also has to do with the fact that PR firms and many who work in the profession generally don't trust journalists very much and think that without their handholding, a journalist couldn't do his or her job. Of course, they'll never admit it, but if you work in PR long enough, you'll find people who think they can do the job better than the journalist can.

The craziest thing about all this is the only people hurt through this practice are PR professionals and the industry as a whole. I always advise clients that they should never ask to review any article before it goes to print, let alone expect someone will provide it for review. In addition, I always tell clients that, whether they like it or not, they need the media outlet more than the media outlet needs them. On a given day, there are hundreds or more messages competing for a journalist's attention, making it vitally important that messages be well constructed and quickly get to the worthiness of the pitch. If a company or someone working on its behalf can't quickly get to the point, it will go in the proverbial round file.

Rather than worry so much about leveling the playing field between PR reps and journalists, how about we spend more time teaching junior PR execs how to put together a pitch, how to properly follow up on the phone and other techniques that will benefit both them and the profession? That will pay dividends that will go far beyond anything that could come from controlling a single story.

Nonprofit Group Takes on the Mission of "Outing" PR

You may have heard of the Center for Media & Democracy, a Washington, D.C. think tank that has made its mission "investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda" in an effort to allegedly increase interest in the democratic process.

The company hit YouTube last week with a video that equates all forms of public relations as propaganda and basically says that public relations involves nothing but spin and is the reason that more Americans don't really know what's going on in their country.

John Stauber, founder of the organization's PRWatch initiative, says PR is all about media manipulation, perception management and putting hidden messages into the mouths of people we trust. Implicit in this comment is that most of what constitutes PR messages is untrue. Stauber also makes the big mistake of comparing advertising messages with PR campaigns. While it's true that both of them are part of marketing campaigns, the two worlds operate quite differently. A good PR campaign is about telling an honest message involving a client and letting a journalist decide whether it's worth the merit of a media mention. In contrast, advertising messages are clearly an attempt by companies to get you to believe what they see as compelling features of what they're trying to sell. The vast majority of America is intelligent enough to know the difference.

In his video, Stauber mentions some of the most well-known PR firms in the country, who he claims nobody knows about, this despite the fact that many of them are part of large, publicly-held companies. As brought up in a post on this issue by Richard Laermer and Kevin Dugan, it's embarrassing to say that some of the allegations in the video are true. That said, anyone wanting to present an issue gets a lot more credibility when they present both sides of an issue. In the case of PR, it would be well worth anyone wanting to present an objective look to point out all the new products, services and issues that come to the public's attention through public relations. One of the most recent ones I was involved in concerned a push in New York State to dramatically change ethical guidelines concerning legal advertising. Until the rules were scaled back following public comment, the initial rules could have had a chilling impact on the public's ability to get information about legal providers and the services they offer.

So while there's always plenty of blame to go 'round when it comes to the negative side of most any issue, a balanced approach will always lend more credibility. In the case of public relations, we'd also be better served if we had an organization that would produce more of its own educational material confronting these kinds of issues. But I'm not holding my breath on that.