PR vs Publicity and Bridge vs Barrier

There have always been discussions about the differences between public relations and publicists. Some people are in public relations, but call themselves publicists because they see that as more glamorous, while other PR professionals tend to wince when called publicists.

But, either way, both PR professionals and publicists are the face of PR/publicity, and it is how our industry is judged.

Recently, Liz Smith from Page Six had a screed against publicists, and Jack O'Dwyer, the industry stalwart, wrote a column on what she had to say.

The O'Dwyer article on Liz's story was:


Liz Smith, whose column is syndicated in 65 papers across the U.S., including the New York Post, used her entire Sunday, Nov. 28 column to attack PR people who she says are blocking access to their clients and employers.

The column not only rapped the big celebrity-handling PR firms like PMK, but PR pros working for "government and big business."

"Where the press once dominated publicists and treated them like slaves, the situation is reversed," she wrote.

PR people become "royalty" themselves when they represent a famous person and get in the position of being able to block access to that person, she said.

"The gates are locked against the press and much of the press, unable to do an end run, stands outside begging to be let in," she said.

PR's "iron control of the players themselves has created a vacuum where rumors, fancies and imagination run absolutely riot and the line between truth and fiction is utterly blurred," she continued.

She expressed sympathy for the "free-wheeling in-depth reporter out to get the truth (who) is stymied at every turn."

Dart Firing Cited

The starting point for the Smith column was the recent firing of Leslee Dart from PMK by Pat Kingsley.

Smith theorizes that the "powerful" Kingsley, after losing her No. 1 client, Tom Cruise, wanted to show that she was not "weakened in any way."

Another theory advanced by "Page Six" of the Post on Nov. 19 was that Simon Halls, a partner in the firm of Huvane Baum Halls, which was acquired by PMK, helped Kingsley to make the power play.

One possible reason thus far unmentioned by the newspapers is that parent Interpublic lost a record $587 million in the third quarter and that IPG may have sent word out to its many units to trim highly paid executives wherever possible.

Smith Likes 'Good Old Days'

Smith expressed her fondness for the "good-old/bad-old days" when publicists had to supply four newstips in order to place one favorable item about a client.

"There are no truly famous bylines anymore because PR types are more powerful than anybody writing or editing," she complained.

"Magazine editors and columnists alike go to the powerful PR companies and beg to be allowed to interview their clients, or even to get a simple question answered," she wrote.

The reversal of roles of PR and editors evens things up but the relationship is now "intensely adversarial," says the columnist.

She feels this "overt and sometimes hostile-guarded protection of stars and stories" is hurtful to the public.

"The reader of entertainment news is not made richer, nor is he much enlightened by so much control, spin and political correctness," she concluded, feeling "the three-headed dog of spin control (he can look many ways) is probably here to stay."

While Smith had some good points - points brought up by Jack O'Dwyer in the past - her main beef seemed to be that she misses the power that she had over publicists, making them bend to her will. You know, just like the good ol' days of the Sweet Smell of Success.

Jack had a good rebuttal of certain points, but had to agree on the barrier PR has become:


Liz Smith's venting about non-helpful PR people in big business as well as entertainment and government has a lot of truth in it.

The corporate pullback from actively building relationships with reporters started in the 1970s and was partly due to a wave of ethics that swept journalism in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

There was too much wining and dining of reporters in the '60s and '70s.

More to the point, it didn't have much effect on the media's coverage of the scandals of that day.

Companies figured, if it's not going to help us in time of need, why bother?

Our most frequent experience in calling a major company currently is that a PR aide will take the call and ask the reason for it.

Corporate PR pros almost never answer their own phones.

Whether they ever call back is a function of the status of the news medium you're calling from, the nature of the story, and the particular tack you're taking.

It's defensive. Large companies have major advertising and promotion campaigns under way and mostly don't need another mention in the press.

The marketing and legal depts. may have to be brought in on any dealings with the press, further complicating the situation.

Mid-Sized Firms Can Talk

However, mid-sized and smaller firms usually have no such worries.

Some have taken up the traditional PR burden, which is "educating" beat reporters and even roving reporters on how their particular company and industry operate.

There are plenty of companies like Omega Travel, the fifth biggest travel agency, that have a policy of spending time with reporters and helping them to get their stories straight.

"Reporters want to be educated and they're very grateful for it," says CEO Gloria Bohan.

This is where we see growth for PR in the future.

PR can get back to its roots if enough CEOs practice good press relations.

Traditional advertising has become too expensive for many mid-sized companies but an entire galaxy of communications techniques are now available, especially those that use the internet.

PR firms are moving into this area by positioning themselves as marketing communications firms.
Firms tell us they get much more attention and accounts when they bill themselves as marcom.

Short Definition of Marcom

What's marcom? The blunt definition is "pressless PR." Another definition is "everything but ads."

Clients don't have time these days to wait weeks or months while a newspaper, magazine or TV placement is set up. They need sales now.

Savvy "PR" firms are pitching "customer relationship management" to clients, stealing a page from the largest ad agency of all – Omnicom.

OMC says a third of its $10 billion business (actually $70B+ in value of ads placed, sales promotion, direct mail, etc.) is CRM.

The short definition of CRM is teach clients to improve communications with their biggest customers.

This is the quickest, easiest route to more sales and more profits. OMC practices this itself by concentrating on its 250 largest clients.

Activities include building websites for clients, creating direct mail pieces, staging special events, improving the graphics of clients, finding new markets, getting clients to participate in more trade shows, etc.

A major company told us that its biggest marketing goal at the moment is attracting prospects to its website. This involves having the proper "key" words that will multiply volume of visitors.

Don't Give Up On Press

There's no need to give up on the press. A company will get plenty of press if it makes its CEO and other executives available to reporters.

"Treat the press as you would a major customer," was advice given by West Coast PR and marketing guru Regis McKenna.

That advice is still worthwhile. Medium and smaller companies can build sales by considering themselves "educators" of reporters rather than adversaries and by using the host of communications techniques short of buying ad space that are now available.

The red carpet should be rolled out and a brass band should play when a reporter calls.

"Press calls have to be answered immediately," says Bohan, who has stacks of clips to prove the efficacy of this policy.

What companies don't need is a junior staffer blocking press access to their executives. Quite often executives have no idea of the number of press calls that come in.

A West Coast PR source told us the following story.

The CEO of a utility happened to be with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times and the utility's PR head.

The CEO complained to the reporter, "Why don't you ever write about us?" The reporter replied, "I call you all the time."

It turned out the PR head was pocketing such calls. The next day, the PR person lost his job.

Jack has previously noted that the job of PR is to be a bridge, not a barrier - including his interview with POP! PR and its blog.

Is this a situation that needs to be changed? Indubitably. Is the industry going to be able to change it, to work together as an industry for the common good? Doubtfully, and that's the sad truth.

1 comment
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