Redefining Public Relations: Does It Matter?

Years ago, a colleague who’d spent 20+ years at PR agencies joined a large marketing services firm. He told me he’d cracked the code to winning new business, significantly increasing his batting average in selling programs to existing ad and marketing clients. The secret? Never calling it “public relations.” Instead, he would say “promotion,” or refer to “adding news value.”

Silly? Maybe, but his point was that many of his clients didn’t understand PR, or its usefulness, either as a standalone tool or one piece of a larger marketing mix. Also, they needed to be spoken to in their own language.

I like to think that prospective clients are more sophisticated about what we do today. But, what does it say when you have to make up new words to communicate what you bring to the table? And the misconceptions persist, if the terms used are any indication. Last year I had a client tell me that PR is the cheapest form of advertising. Others insist that it’s interchangeable with publicity. Some call it buzz. Perception management. Spin. Optics.

What we do has many synonyms and quite a few definitions, but most are outdated, narrow, or wildly off the mark. That’s why it’s interesting that the Public Relations Society of America has set out to update the definition of PR for the 21st Century. PRSA is asking its own members, PR pros across the country, for help in crowdsourcing a more refined and relevant definition of what we do. Reading PRSA’s Rosanna Fiske joke about her parents not understanding what she’s been doing all these years struck a familiar, frustrating note.

When I read about the PRSA search in The New York Times, I was impressed by the prominence of the story (a huge win for the association), but a bit underwhelmed by the campaign itself. The crowdsourcing was a nice twist, it seemed, but overall, these types of exercises don’t amount to much. After all, there are so many other issues our industry is grappling with, from diversity, to ethics, to impact measurement.

And yet. There has never been a time of faster change – or greater relevance -for our industry.  And shouldn’t “better PR for PR” start with us? Also, the article spurred me to look back at the working definition of public relations. Get ready. It’s “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

That’s it. Talk about underwhelming. I admire the restraint, but the definition is anything but meaningful. As a sentence, it’s awkward and jargon-y. (Done any mutual adapting lately?)

It made me think about how often we urge a client to substitute more differentiated language in describing a brand benefit, add power to a quote, or make an interview message more crisp. Or what it feels like when a mangled headline or misconstrued message makes its way into the free Web, never to be erased. Words matter.

One of the reasons I’m working in PR today is because I love language. And I believe passionately in the power of content – written, spoken, shared, mashed-up, etc., to influence, provoke, or spur action.

So, bring it on, PRSA. If we can’t articulate what we do, then who can? And it might make me, for one, feel a little prouder to have built a career in an industry that has grown and evolved so dramatically, and whose value and relevance is more accepted than ever before. Though I doubt it will make my mother any clearer about what it is I really do.

If PR Is A Woman’s World, Why Do We Earn Less?

The feminization of the PR industry is undeniable, and it’s not a particularly good thing. For one, it hurts diversity. And it’s been widely noted that the domination of any profession by women tends to have a depressing effect on salaries. A recently debated 2007 PRSA study confirmed what we already knew: that men earn up to $30,000 more than women for the same work. Now, that is depressing.

It’s International Women’s Day, and we’re reminded of the enormous challenges faced by women the world over, as well as the stubborn salary inequity here at home. In fact, the big-picture statistics make the PR wage gap seem like small change, and one that’s easily closed. With our advantages, we should be able to catch up quickly in a female-dominated industry, shouldn’t we?

Yet, the gap persists, probably because 80% of senior PR managers are male. But, why? Women take time off to raise children, of course. Yet, even allowing for family leave and “mommy trackers,” the gap is wider than it should be, say the experts.

Some say women just need time, but that doesn’t wash. Females have dominated PR for decades, yet the number of C-level women at large PR firms is static or declining. And, I hate to say it, but just because women are in HR and middle management does not mean that we hire and promote in our own image. On the contrary, the feminization of PR makes qualified men more sought after…and very possibly, better paid.

But there’s another likely reason for the salary gap. Apparently, women don’t ask for what they’re worth, either when starting a new job, or afterwards. A Carnegie Mellon study showed that women ask for raises or promotions 85% less often than male counterparts. The study is rife with discouraging facts, but for my money, the most telling are the metaphors chosen by the participants. While men compare salary negotiations to a sports competition, a majority of women liken them to a visit to the dentist. Ouch.

I think we’re on to something here. It’s hard to catch up if you’re behind at the starting gate. In today’s workplace, you have to negotiate, ideally from a position of confidence and in a spirit of win-win. To do that, you need to believe you’re worth it. I do think women know their worth, but my suspicion is that, in PR, where we’re often trained to promote others while we stay in the background, we wait for recognition. As Professor Karen Pine, a psychology professor and co-author of “Sheconomics,” puts it, “Many women think, ‘As long as I work really, really hard, someone will notice and they will pay me more.’” But they don’t.

Clearly, there are many things at work in the PR business. Women can benefit from better mentoring, more flexible work schedules, smart use of technology, and an “old-girl” network at the top. These and other factors have been noted by PRSA, The Council of PR Firms, and the handful of women who run large agencies.

But, it pays to ask. So, I have a suggestion for every woman out there who thinks she’s underpaid. Behave as if you were promoting your most important client, – yourself. Gather the facts, make the case, take your inspiration, and pitch. And then, keep on pitching. And don’t take no for an answer.

Astroturfing Is PR’s Dirty Battleground

If social media is the PR industry’s shiny new object, then fake-grassroots activities – known as “astroturfing” is its dirtiest open secret.

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t followed the policy details of the healthcare debate, yet. it’s driving me crazy. Not just the ballooning price of coverage for my employees. Or even the $4500 I spent on dental work…though I’m grinding my teeth just thinking about it. It’s the coverage and counter-coverage of massive fake-grassroots protests, and the fact that it’s routinely referred to as PR.

Of course, I mean the eruptions of emotion, even rage, by supposedly ordinary Americans at the Town Hall meetings about healthcare reform. Democracy in action, right? Free speech getting a workout? Maybe. But, connect the dots, and the outbursts seem a little staged. Often they’re managed by political operatives with a corporate or legislative agenda. Those innocuous-sounding citizen groups are nearly always funded by partisan organizations or corporate interests. Which is fine, as long as they’re legitimate, and we know exactly who’s getting their hands dirty down in the faux weeds. But too often, we don’t.

And, though it may seem minor in this context, the reputational impact on public relations makes me cringe. In MSNBC’s 10-minute segment about the firms and groups involved in the healthcare protests, they were dismissed over and over as “pure PR.”  If so, it’s the dark underbelly… huge, hidden, and when it pops up, really, really ugly.

There’s a big difference between legitimate grassroots mobilizing, and the synthetic stuff, I know.  And, I’ve worked with many lobbying and public affairs professionals who counsel their clients wisely and with integrity.  More importantly, this isn’t a partisan problem. No political party – or industry – has a monopoly on deception.  But, that’s precisely what bothers me. Faking it is so ubiquitous that even the watchdogs seem pretty powerless to do much about it.  The PRSA explicitly prohibits deceptive practices in its code of ethics, but how is the code enforced? Violators are subject to expulsion from PRSA. Does anyone think that’s a deterrent?

Call me naive, but I think it’s ironic that our industry obsesses about transparency, and regulators worry about Mommy bloggers who accept gifts, while millions are spent on subterranean tactics to change public opinion.  The only remedy I can think of, and the best reason for political and corporate interests not to engage in fakery, is that it’s so easily exposed….at least, I hope so.

The erosion of public trust in big media (and big government) that we blogged about so passionately following the death of Walter Cronkite may have a positive flipside. Everyone’s skeptical of just about everything today. I mean, even my 89-year-old mother knows a staged photo op when she sees one.
Still, it’s got to be someone’s job to try to unearth the truth, and that brings me back to the mainstream press. We need them, warts and all. We’d all better hope that those nonpartisan – or openly partisan, but skilled and honest – working journalists can keep on rooting out the real story, while those who engage in fakery will just dig themselves into a hole.