Are There Just Too Many PR People?

PR people have taken a beating in the past few weeks. Currently, it’s due to our increasing numbers. A recent example, among many, is a May piece in The Economist subtitled “Flacks Outnumber Hacks.” It compares PR professionals to “urban foxes” and calls us “slime-slingers,” among other things, while, oddly, positioning bloggers as the new guardians of the truth.

Then there’s the comically passionate jeremiad from TechCrunch that declares war on all of PR-land. Again. Likening PR to “a weed growing out of control,” it singles out Facebook’s team as the “worst of the worst” when it comes to “slimeballishness.” It’s basically a rant against Facebook, but at least it negates the bloggers-as-truth-tellers argument.

Aside from the gratuitous resentment that nearly jumps off the screen, I have to wonder. Are there too many PR people? And if there are, does it mean we’re using our influence to distort the truth?

Unlike, say, lawyers, who are being churned out by schools in greater numbers than the demand for their services, PR is growing organically. One reason is the rise of social media. Others include the globalization of business, the news cycle, and the general maturation of the industry. So, maybe the barbs flung our way are just sour grapes.

Yet a far more thoughtful piece co-published by ProPublica and The Columbia Journalism Review gets to the heart of the issue. In the article, New York Times reporter David Barstow warns against the “platoons of PR people” that threaten to overwhelm shrinking numbers of journalists. “The muscles of journalism are weakening,” he says, while those of PR are “bulking up…as if on steroids.” The piece details how well-financed corporate and government interests are positioned to influence, or even dominate, the news. It cites the 24/7 news cycle and pressure to be first as additional factors leading PR to “fill the vacuum.”

It’s hard to argue with the trend lines. And given the growth of soft money, front groups that obscure their real origins, and the burgeoning lobbying industry, transparency is a huge concern.

But I’m not sure that growing numbers of PR pros, particularly in the non-political arena, can be equated with greater efficacy, whether for better or evil. When industries grow, mediocrity often flourishes. I can’t help but think that, while public relations is underappreciated in many corporate settings, we’re given far too much credit in exposés like these.

At the end of the day, I love reading blogs and articles that take on our industry. That’s because I hope it means there’s still a balance, and that the uneasy symbiosis between PR pros and journalists will continue, with neither side gaining too much strength, getting too smug, or believing our own PR.

PR People Are Just Different

Last night at my children’s middle school graduation ceremony, I was struck by how my husband and I, both PR professionals, reacted to the evening’s speakers, who included a board of education rep and the superintendent of schools. They mumbled, they were unfocused, and they didn’t even hold their punch lines long enough for the audience to chuckle.

While others may have just been bored, we wondered, why hadn’t they been speaker-trained? Then, it dawned on me, PR people are just different. For example:

When the average person sees “New York Times” on their Caller ID, they know it’s subscription services calling, but a PR person leaps for the phone, thinking that the Times is calling about a client story!

When most people hear about an oil spill or giant product recall, they’re disgusted, or maybe just cynical, about the news. But we PR types wonder, “Which firm is handling crisis communications?”

When the typical person sees a TV news van at an event they wonder if perhaps they’ll be captured on video. The PR person feels a visceral elation that the press has arrived and has to restrain herself from jumping the producer.

Most people notice a large, splashy feature in the paper (or a funny segment at the end of the news), and they skim it…or not. The PR person analyzes the quotes and feels competitive for the rest of the day, wondering whose placement it is.

What examples do you have that show “PR people are just different?”

A Father’s ROI

How my dad’s “investment” in me improved my PR skills

My dad spent years investing his time and wisdom in shaping my values, skills and “way in the world”. Now that we have celebrated his big day, I wanted to reflect on the great tips he’s given me by word and example, that have helped in my career at a New York PR firm.

“Get back in the ring”

Seems simple enough, but in PR, truer words were never spoken. We are constantly subjected to potential rejection – clients who don’t hire you; media that reject your pitch and you have to have the wherewithal to shake it off, re-group and start again. It helps to try to get feedback on what didn’t work to enable you to learn from it.

“Respect must be earned”

My dad always said, anyone can do something well once, but to earn respect and further yourself in a career like PR, you must consistently apply the same high standards to each aspect of the job and make people respect you. Keep notes of what works and doesn’t to help guide you.

“If you don’t know the answer, know where to find it”

No one is a walking encyclopedia, and there is no shame in saying “I’ll get back to you.” But there is shame if you don’t know all the myriad resources available to find an answer.  In the PR trade, this type of knowledge is like gold!

“Have a passion for what you do”

Find the elements of the job you truly love and let it be known! Your enthusiasm for what you do will be infectious and in a job such as public relations where “selling” is essential, your enthusiasm and passion will help spur the same in co-workers, clients and contacts. 

“Set the bar high”

In our office, we have weekly work goals, but I learned from my dad to set my own business and personal goals as well.  Once you commit them to paper (or screen) they become “real” and I find myself more inspired to achieve them.

Do Journalists Really Make The Best PR People?

The recent Burson Marsteller “whispergate” mess got me thinking about the long-lived, symbiotic relationship between people who work in PR and those who make their living in journalism. The two PR pros who tried to seed negative stories about Google on behalf of a not-so-secret client (Facebook) were former reporters who had only recently moved to the dark side. Some expressed surprise that ex-journos weren’t more skillful in their media relations, while others chalked it up to different sensibilities. But our industry is growing, and a good portion of our swelling numbers comes from an influx of former media types.

So, do journalists really make the best PR people?

Certainly, someone with deep experience spotting news, shaping a story, and writing against often-hellish deadlines has valuable skills that are in hot demand for publicity generation. And ex-journos impress clients, too. In my large-agency career, some were invited to the big pitch in order to opine on story potential, drop names, and wow the prospect, never to be heard from again. Others were installed in editorial spots where they could wield a blue pencil but otherwise stay out of the fray.

I’ve seen some adjust with ease, while others, even when extremely talented, struggle with the transition, especially to an agency. Here’s what you need to think about if you’re considering a switch – or looking to hire an ex-reporter for an account or media relations spot.

Are you ready to be the seller instead of the buyer? Unless you’ve come up as a freelancer who needs to win assignments in order to eat, it can be hard to pitch stories to unresponsive reporters and editors. And it’s even harder if some of your buyers are ex-colleagues.

Do you speak marketing? One of the tougher transitions might be from the news desk to marketing PR, which hard-bitten reporters often disdain as fluff. Consider a crash course in marketing, but if you can’t see yourself packaging the benefits of a new cereal or pitching, say, Mr. Bubble’s 50th birthday bash, then look at financial or professional services PR instead.

Can you toe the corporate line? Even at so-called creative boutiques, the clients – and the general workstyle – may be more structured and corporate than life at a daily news desk.

Can you practice diplomacy? I once had to reassign a journalist buddy after an uncensored – and highly insulting – response to a question from a C-level client.  Contrary to the stereotype of the PR pro as a toadying yes-person, we value honest counsel, and so do our clients.  But, the feedback has to be delivered in a constructive way, with corporate objectives and sensitivities kept in mind.

Can you crunch hours? Tracking hours may sound like a silly administrative detail, but, on the agency side, successful time management, accountability, and billability can be the difference between success and failure.

Do you see the bigger picture? Even if an ex-journo starts in media relations, the typical growth path is through account and staff management. That requires a broader backgrounding in the many facets of PR that go beyond publicity, from brand strategy to program development. It also calls for a real talent for managing people – including clients and staff.

Can you serve many masters? Corporate life is very different from a newsroom, and a particular challenge of agency work is that we serve so many constituents. Those on the firing line answer to the media they’re pitching, a direct manager or supervisor, a client, and, usually, the client’s bosses. There can be new communications protocols, bureaucracy, surprising expectations, and tremendous pressure for results.

In the ideal world, every PR person would spend a year as a journalist. And if every reporter spent just six months pitching at a PR firm, imagine what we could accomplish together.

All Work And No Play, In PR? No Way!

Want to know one of the secrets to improving your PR skills? Play! The right kind of play incorporated into your day can help relieve stress, heighten creativity and problem-solving skills as well as make you more comfortable in social situations.

Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play has actually demonstrated the active presence of play in the accomplishments of the very successful and also identified negative consequences that inevitably accumulate in a play-deprived life.

Who wants to be play-deprived anyway? But what are the “right kinds of play” to help you be more successful in PR? Dr. Brown has identified several; here are some of the most relevant to those in the PR trade:

Storytelling When you come in to the office on Monday and regale your officemates with a wonderful weekend story, repeat the latest gossip from TMZ or just tell a really funny joke – you are storytelling. Good, focused, well-paced storytelling helps your presentation skills, whether you’re presenting to a new client prospect; conducting a national publicity campaign  or doing internal work.

Imaginative Play And you thought playing COD or the Sims had no intrinsic value! Role-playing games or even karaoke – any situation in which you are “acting” can help prepare you for many work scenarios, especially tough interactions or first-time experiences. Think about that the next time you are facing an enemy avatar.

Object Play You want to be a more innovative problem-solver? Solve some word or number problems. The more regularly you play word games like Scrabble, NPR’s weekly puzzle, or number games like KenKen or Sudoku, the more you are “exercising” your brain for the challenges facing a busy New York PR firm.

Social Play Do you get together for game night? OK, how about Beer Pong or darts at your favorite bar? Each of these social games helps you engage better with co-workers, clients, tough media contacts or anyone with whom improved social skills are an asset.

What is your favorite way to play?

Ode To My PR Office

Office, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Each morning I come into my own space ready to create something new on behalf of a client or for our company.  Like anyone, I make my space my own and draw upon certain things for inspiration and to help me through my day. Some are totems since the dawn of office-time and others are fairly recent additions.

Let me take you through my office must-haves:

1)      Awesome pens. I cannot create without an arsenal of colored Pilot G-2 07 pens. They are smooth and make your writing very neat. They are terrific for note-taking and make me feel artistic.

2)      Scratch paper. Waste not, want not. I cannot throw away paper that is only used on one side. Therefore, I have a whole drawer of “used” yet brilliantly white paper that I recycle and use for note-taking and feel very good about.

3)      Coffee filters. If there is a more utilitarian item in an office, I don’t know about it. They can be used as: napkins, paper towels, plates, servers of microwave popcorn and, oh yes, coffee filters. I could go on.

 

4)      Gum. Nothing stimulates creativity better than gum. Chew. Think. Chew. Think. Currently I am a fan of Extra Dessert Delights Mint Chocolate Chip, which by now you have surmised is both a dessert and a delight (and sugar-free)

5)      PostIts with funny sayings. “All this and a paycheck too..” and other witticisms can brighten your day and your recipient’s too, especially when the note asks for a favor or delivers less than terrific news.

Well, these are all the things I have to have to keep me whistling a happy tune at my desk, what about you?

Apology PR: What Happened To The ‘Good Wife’?

For the record, I thought Rep. Anthony Weiner’s apology was fairly strong. He accepted responsibility, admitted that he lied, vowed to change, and issued apologies to practically everyone in the universe, even the Democrats’ Darth Vader, Andrew Breitbart. (Who, in a surreal move, nearly hijacked Weiner’s air time…but that’s another post.) Weiner then subjected himself to endless cringe-inducing questions from the press rabble.

But there was one thing missing from Weiner’s exercise in apology PR, and that was his wife, Huma Abedin. Ms. Abedin’s absence, and her low profile throughout “Weinergate,” has been noted by the press.  It’s indicative of an independent spouse’s prerogative, but also possibly of changing attitudes about the role of “the good wife” in crisis management strategy and public perception.

We’re accustomed to the supportive, unwavering spouse who literally stands by her man, — in public,  in the most humiliating circumstances possible. Who can forget Silda Spitzer’s hollow gaze, or Dina McGreevy’s odd smile? The good wife has been an essential element of the reputation playbook. Observers, especially female observers, are meant to think, “If she can forgive him and stay by his side, then surely I can do the same.”

But things are changing. Part of it may be that high-achieving political wives like Maria Shriver and Huma Abedin have more to lose by expressing tacit approval, or at least forbearance, in the face of bad behavior. They have their own careers, goals, and identities that aren’t inextricably bound to their marital status.

But I also think that public opinion has evolved. The dutiful spouse who must demonstrate unquestionable loyalty to her husband is no longer a part of the crisis management handbook or the apology formula. A wife isn’t merely an accoutrement in the drama. Nor is she a lighting rod or surrogate for the female demographic.

Here’s one reason why I think public perception has changed. I’ll bet that if Ms. Abedin had appeared at her husband’s presser, we’d have thought, “Why does he have to drag her into this mess?” And rightly so. I’m not sure if the good wife is dead, but she’s definitely getting more independent, and more interesting.

And that’s a good thing.

The Difficult Conversation In PR

We all dread it. Whether you are letting a friend know that you were hurt by something she said or telling a co-worker about a client problem — the “difficult conversation” is stressful for all parties.

Although there are endless scenarios that get you there, the facts remain the same — at one point or another, you’ll have to sit down and have a talk that you don’t really want to have.

In the business world, where professional relationships are at risk, there are some steps to take to make the conversation not just less painful, but positive and productive. Here are some ways to make the difficult conversation a little easier:

Time is of the essence. Don’t delay. Gather your thoughts and address the situation. If you wait, you may never have the conversation. Or, you run the risk of word getting out through the grapevine, and that can be damaging in more ways than one.

Set a goal for the conversation. Decide in advance what you’d like to outcome to be, whether a simple apology, different behavior in the future, or a different working relationship.

Be professional. Set a time and date to have the conversation. Be thoughtful about location, seating, and body language. Think through all possible responses and reactions.

Come prepared. Write down bullet points for yourself and select constructive language. You’ll be more confident and can leave the conversation knowing you conveyed what’s most important.

Be constructive/avoid negative terms. Don’t try to sugar-coat the news, but use neutral or positive language where possible.

Avoid the blame game. You likely won’t have a constructive (and productive) conversation if blame is being tossed around; to defuse defensiveness, try to focus on the future.

Move on. Don’t harp. It’s over now.

Crisis PR Tips From "Weinergate"

Last night, Jon Stewart mocked his own ambivalence about going below the belt on close friend Rep. Anthony Weiner in a bit that epitomized the appeal of the scandal known as  “Weinergate.” A Tom Brokaw “angel” appeared over one shoulder urging journalistic restraint, while a Don Rickles “devil” on the other side repeated, “But it’s about Weiner’s wiener!”

The story has it all – sex, partisan politics, Twitter… and endless opportunities for wordplay.
As Rep. Weiner himself admits, the jokes just write themselves as the story keeps, um, growing. But apart from pun-ditry, the frenzy over the crude photo that appeared oh-so-briefly on his Twitter feed offers lessons for handling sensitive matters. Because in this case, it’s Weiner’s own approach to media that helped turn a weekend story into a full-blown crisis.

Don’t flip-flop. No pun intended. Weiner, who is reportedly his own press advisor, started by laughing off the incident. When it escalated, he launched an ill-advised media talkathon. Then, he refused to answer the questions his own responses raised. A better strategy would have been a single press statement or interview that explained the situation to the best of his abilility.

Be brief. The normally press-savvy Weiner thought he could fall back on the “talking defense” that has made him a popular cable guest. But this is personal, and he’s already on the defensive. Too much accessibility without sticking to a prepared script nearly always makes it worse.

Stay calm. Blowing his stack and calling a CNN reporter a “jackass” only served to guarantee at least 12 more hours of the news cycle, while making him look stressed. Not a smart move.

Get the bad news out. This one’s the biggie. Weiner’s response that he couldn’t say “with certitude” that the tight-whiteys weren’t his set off a fresh barrage of speculation, with good reason. Bottom line, there are bound to be some very personal photos of this Congressional member floating around. If that’s the case, he should say so. It’s embarrassing, but not illegal. And if there’s more, he should decide what should be shared and get it all out in one sitting.

Think it through. By claiming he’d been hacked, but declining to have the FBI investigate, Weiner gave rise to speculation that he has something to hide. Evidence suggests his Twitter could have been hacked, but the use of that word by a U.S. representative triggers questions that he should have anticipated. But, sadly, he seems to be trying to improvise his way out of the mess.

The most ironic PR learning here is that the young woman in question, a 21-year-old Seattle college student, has handled herself masterfully. She put out a statement firmly denying any inappropriate contact with Weiner, explained the tongue-in-cheek “boyfriend” references on her Twitter feed, and doggedly stuck to her story, refusing all media interviews.

Of course she has the benefit of not being a married U.S. Representative from New York with a liberal bent, Clinton ties, and a big mouth. But I think a PR star is born. It’s too late for Weiner to follow her example, but he can still heed the advice of former roomie Stewart, who ended his segment by yelling, “Just tell the truth!”

For PR Pros, There Will Never Be Another Oprah

As Oprah’s long goodbye at last culminated in her final show last week, many PR professionals breathed a sigh of relief. The country’s most powerful third-party endorser has moved on. No longer will consumer clients gauge PR success by whether we could land an Oprah segment.

For so many years, an appearance on Oprah was the gold standard for product publicity. Most of us have lost count of the clients or prospects who were convinced that their product or service was absolutely right for Oprah. An on-air appearance was the closest thing to a magic bullet in terms of media exposure – opening doors, triggering demand, building brands, creating stars. Heck, she even helped elect our President.

One key to Oprah’s success was her relationship to the audience. Despite the utter commerciality of her endorsements and the legendary giveaways, she was authentic. It was a girlfriend-to-girlfriend thing. All she wanted was for us to live our best life, just like her.

There will never be another Oprah. For one thing, who can fill her Louboutins? I can’t imagine Ellen taking down James Frey, or Katie Couric picking a president. Jon Stewart may rival her influence for a certain demographic, but he’ll never be the PR powerhouse that was Oprah.

And it’s not just because of her odd mix of down-home appeal, spirituality, and rank materialism. It’s also about the mass media. TV is just too fragmented to nurture and build another Oprah. She came of age before the Internet and 24-hour cable. Just look at the evening news…how many of us know, or care, that Scott Pelley is replacing Couric on CBS?

One blogger likened Oprah and her power to Johnny Carson, who reigned over late-night TV for 30 years, concluding that, in the end, Oprah would take her grand stage with her. And, whether it’s for better or worse, what goes with her is the greatest PR endorsement that ever was.