Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Lois Whitman Hess Debate Continues

As many of you might recall, the blogosphere was set abuzz earlier this year following a backlash against publicity tactics employed by one tech agency. Three months later, the firm is again making a name for itself -- and not in a good way.

Earlier this month, HWH Public Relations sent out a press release in December regarding booth appointments for client Samsung HDD at the upcoming CES consumer technology tradeshow. Among the recipients was Phone Scoop, a well-respected blog that's widely followed for all the latest news on mobile devices and carriers. Phone Scoop founder Rich Brome sent an e-mail in response to the e-mail asking HWH's Lois Whitman-Hess to remove his name from the list, saying his blog didn't cover the type of products Hess' client was promoting.

Instead of replying with an "I'm sorry," Hess shot back with an angry e-mail whose text included:

"CES publishes a list of press … As a PR agency we use that list so we can solicit press for booth appts. I hope you can appreciate that. If you don’t, let me introduce you to the 'delete' button. Or in the future do not sign up as a press person for CES.

"Furthermore, do not make any threats to my company. I don’t need you to tell me what is right or what is wrong. I have been in the CE business for 42 years. I have seen nasty people like you melt away faster than a snowball going up hill in the rain. I am waiting for an apology. Maybe we can meet at CES for a hug or a slug.

"P.S. I just visited your web site. I would hardly call your blog a publication."

By the next day, the blogosphere was abuzz with the exchange with personal attacks and PR bloggers taking various sides over the issue. Interestingly, one of her defenders was POP! PR Jots!' Jeremy Pepper. While he was quick to point out he wasn't defending Hess' actions, he said that sending off-topic messages to outlets in advance of a trade show was one of those unavoidable things that happen under pressure to line up appointments for clients.

Pepper is, of course, right. But his explanation also points to another key issue in PR. Practitioners are all too often guilty of not realistically telling clients what can be expected in response to a request or demand. Instead, we work to move mountains, often embarrassing both ourselves and the client in response. If both the agency and their client work together in advance of a major initiative to prepare a clear strategy, this kind of stuff doesn't have to happen. Failure to prepare should never be labeled a media problem.

Monday, December 08, 2008

What to Make of "Web 2.0" From a PR Standpoint

It's almost impossible to read anything connected to the practice of public relations without quickly coming across the phrases "Web 2.0" or "social media." While platforms of these types have no doubt spawned many valuable exchanges, in many ways I question the efficacy of ways they're being thought of in regard to public relations programs.

Quite simply, it seems there's a notion out there that social-media platforms are the new media and that the most valuable conversations will start taking place on platforms such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. What all the proponents of this "second coming" of communications seem to overlook, however, is that good public relations programs aren't akin to beating a targeted audience over the head with a marketing message until they're motivated to take action. Instead, well-executed public relations programs communicate a value proposition in proven ways that, once explained, is easily understood by the target audience.

One of the things I've railed against continually in terms of the practice of public relations is the fact that so many campaigns and practitioners take the lazy-man's way out. They spend so much time looking for the lowest-hanging fruit and targeting it that their only real accomplishment annoying people. Taking the "mallet" approach isn't based around any kind of dialog at all, whether the conversation is taking place with an editor/reporter at a traditional outlet, or with an audience on a social-networking platform. I've personally noticed an increase in hostility among users of social networking platforms at the veiled attempts at promotion that have begun taking over discussions.

I think this is the latest in a series of developments that are challenging the prevalent notion that "Web 2.0" (whatever the heck that is) is rendering PR useless and/or meaning that dialogues have moved away from traditional media channels entirely. I find it amusing that something that's done through the same browser-based technology that we've had since 1994 is even called Web 2.0, but I guess I'm a curmudgeon in that sense.

One of the big things that PR pros need to grasp is the fact that a dialog is what everybody wants, and it's not just those who are on social-networking platforms. Journalists too want to know that you understand their needs and are willing to help them when you can, even if it's not necessarily on behalf of a client.

I know people who are looking for jobs/clients want to do the best they can to meet their client's/employer's needs, but I hope at some point we can get to a rational discussion on this as an industry.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Why Is PR So Often Behind the '8-Ball'?

It seems every day, I either find myself in a conversation with a PR pro or read something in a trade publication that's acting as if the recession that we're now officially in is only now something that deserves reaction. Given how well PR budgets hold up once times get tough, frankly I'm amazed.

Following last week's post on debate within the Public Relations Society of America regarding licensing, I was involved in an online discussion with PRSA PR chief Arthur Yann. Basically, Yann indicated that the licensing debate was part of a discussion exercise at the annual conference in preparation of next year's bylaws rewrite. He said the topic of licensing didn't mean the organization is formally discussing the issue.

Over the course of the conversation with Yann, I mentioned to him that I've consistently thought the PRSA should serve as more of an industry advocate. Any practitioner who's had a conversation with someone who's never worked with a PR professional will tell you that many people have absolutely no idea what PR is or what a PR person does. The closest most come is work that most closely resembles celebrity representation, which is something the vast majority of PR practitioners aren't engaged in. Nowhere in people's knowledge in connection with PR is mission-critical communications that help companies drive their business. In an effort to remedy that situation, I suggested to Yann that the PRSA conduct surveys that would illustrate the cost effectiveness of public relations in comparison to other forms of marketing. No word on whether that's something the organization will consider.

I close by asking all professional PR practitioners -- and even students -- to PLEASE band together and lead an effort to change this. We complain about having to fight hard for a seat at the table, but all too often we don't back up that need with any kind of supporting information as to why we merit one.

Monday, December 01, 2008

PR Licensing Debate Flares Again

Over the years, there have been a number of proponents of licensure for PR professionals, both in and outside the industry. The reasons vary, but proponents generally argue that licensure does a better job of ensuring standards consistency among practitioners in a way that accreditation, since it is controlled by one body, does not.

Now it appears the Public Relations Society of America is at least discussing the idea among its membership. Attendees to this year's national conference reported that PRSA Chairman Jeff Julin led a debate and discussion on this issue, although details were sparse since the PRSA didn't release a transcript of the conference or issue any other details on discussions to non-attendees.

Some like O'Dwyer columnist Wes Pederson seem to indicate that the First Amendment would be relevant, although it's hard to say what it's impact would be since commercial speech -- which is what PR would most certainly be considered -- is given far fewer protections than individual speech.

Since the disclosure of its discussion at the conference, several columnists have weighed in on the issue, on both sides of the fence. Most feel there's nothing inherent in licensing that leads to an assurance that either the quality of the provider or the service they deliver will certainly be higher.

It's difficult to fully comprehend what proponents of licensing would hope to achieve in the field of PR. For example, if an agency or consultant is charged with developing and executing a media relations campaign, they can't realistically guarantee any outlet or reporter will find a particular story angle interesting. While some might try to guarantee that in advance, which poses an ethical issue of sorts, it's hard to imagine how licensing would guarantee a higher level of success in media campaigns.

While it's easy to understand why licensing is preferred in certain professions like law, where a single mistake can cause tremendous and in some cases irrevokable damages, since most PR firms or consultants work on short-term contracts, it's fairly easy for a dissatisfied client to seek new counsel. Given that fact, perhaps it's best to let the free market rule.