Has PR Lost the Fire in its Belly?

Originally, I had this titled "Has PR lost its balls?" or just the more declarative "PR Has No Balls". I'm sure either would be great for clicks, however, it's a serious question.

And one I was speaking to an old friend about in the industry - and the person's response was "I know that I don't push back as much as I used to on executives or media - but it's just not worth the fight."

That's bad, isn't it? No, not condemning my friend as I know what the person means. While not everything should be a battle, too much has become a "meh" situation that just isn't worth fighting.

We've become so tired of the good fight, that we just go with the flow. And, yes, that's a lot of what is happening in public relations nowadays: the real seasoned communications veterans who wear their battle scars with pride are getting tired of the fight, and the new "senior" people - more like junior staff without the experience to do what is needed and right - just going along for the ride.

But a few other things that have passed my screen the past few months have made me think about this topic more and more - as well as conversations I've had with people.

First, let's look at the Tim Johnson / TechCrunch post. No, I will not link to the post. If you're in public relations, the presumption is you know the issue and likely have an opinion - that is wrong. Yes, I'm friends with Tim and writing about this from that perspective, but even if I wasn't his friend, my POV wouldn't change that much.

When did it become wrong to push back on a reporter? Isn't fighting for our client supposed to be what public relations, in particular media relations, all about? While I don't fully condone Tim's tone of voice, I do fully support his doing the right thing for the client (and, yes, this would have been a much better phone conversation than email conversation).

The saddest part of this whole situation? The piled on attacks by junior PR people (or SM people). Those that have been in the industry for less than a handful of years that have been ready to throw Tim under the bus and condemn him as wrong to dare push back on TechCrunch. Or in the case of the SM people, those that have no clue about PR sure feel good lecturing about PR.

Um, okay, are these the people we REALLY want working for our agencies, on our accounts, to push forward our story? Is this what we're teaching the future PR leaders? Don't fight for what is right, but just take it laying down and rollover for any press? So if there's a wrong article, should we just sit there and take it because we don't want to offend anyone?

Second was this post by Frédéric Filoux on "The Communication Paradox" that reminds me of my interview with Jack O'Dwyer back during the Global PR Blog Week in 2004. Sadly, the two posts are almost 180 degrees from each other.

In the interview, Jack noted that: Right now, there are very bad forces affecting public relations. We are supposed to be a bridge for the press to get to CEOs, not a barrier, but the industry has fallen into the trap of blocking access for the press. There is this tremendous force that is trying to convert public relations into advertising, especially at the conglomerates, and that will be the downfall of public relations.

In the post, Frédéric noted that high-tech corporations have terrible communications - "do such poor communication" - and that PR is employed to stonewall and, to quote, "Most hires are expected to be docile; initiative is strongly discouraged by paranoid upper management layers."

Plus, with all the ways to get content, the stonewalling seems to be against the grain of what you would want to do - get the story to as many people as possible; as a side note, what's the most amusing (saddest?) part of this is that the Web 2.0 companies and PR firms that love to smash corporations for having old news rooms, etc are the ones with no newsrooms, no press contact information, no logos or other content for the public. Go look at your favorite Web 2.0 company that doesn't have senior PR people and try to find information - a press release, a press contact, a logo, past coverage. You rarely will be able to find that information.

When did PR forget that our job was to be that bridge to the public, to the media and turn into stonewalling, Heisman posing professionals? When did we forget to push forward, to be the voice of clients and do the right thing?

For fuck's sake, I sure hope that's not the future of public relations, because we might as well just shut it all down.

Now, me, personally think this change in PR - this loss of testes - began in the dotcom era. That's when many agencies stopped being partners to their clients, and became admins. It's when firms became afraid to push back and have the clients do the right thing, because they were afraid of losing the client and the money.

So from partner to admin for the agency world. PR firms went from being valued partners for strategy, tactics and counsel to admins doing the shit work for clients (and surely billing for it) that meant taking orders. We went from valued partners to replaceable admins, not being that distinguishable than others. We went from the ability to manage expectations to just being yes-men without any thought.

All of this reminds me of lessons my first boss taught me (yah, I can write a book on the advice): protect the client. As agency PR people, we're the air cover for the client, protecting and having the client's back. And that means being the fall-guy at times, but that's what the senior people get paid the big bucks for: to give the smart counsel and strategy to the client, and give air-cover with well-thought out answers and more for clients when they are under fire from press or executives. Is it a fun job?

Well, no, but it's our job.

And that is what seems to be missing. In fact, that seems to be discouraged - don't stick your neck out or give counsel that might be contrary to what the client claims or thinks they want (no, do what they want, watch it fail miserably, but bill), even if what they want is not the best for the client. And senior staff pushes people to just give counsel that the client wants to hear, not needs to hear. And don't manage expectations, because that's letting the client down if they aren't great results.

Yes, I'm speaking from experience when I write that paragraph: pushing back on the client, then getting slapped down at the office for doing the right thing in protecting the client. For being told just to do what the client wants, not what's best for the client. And that's not right. And that's what gets us from the adult table to the kiddie table - we lose our seat and standing with the C-suite if we just become yes-men.

And we're seeing this more and more with social media (we can talk five years ago and replicate that conversation with blogs or podcasts): we just do what the client wants without counsel that might discourage the activity but replace it with a more custom-approach for the client's space. The reality is that social media isn't a one-size fits all but client's get caught up in the shiny and it's the agency's job to put on glasses and suss out what's good and bad, getting client's amazing results.

What can public relations do to get its groove back? We need to go back to the past where we are a full partner. If we don't man up, push back and do what's right for the client and, in a way, public relations, we'll be relegated to continued admin work and, yes, we will likely just be the outreach for social media without having a seat at the table to come up with the ideas, the strategies, the smart tactics for our clients and to push forward to integrated communications.

Now, I am not casting a wide brushstroke against all public relations, but it is something that people need to think about for the future. I know teams at various public relations firms that do the right things for the clients, man up and do the right thing by example.

But the rest of us - where's the fight? Where's the pride? Where's doing the right thing for the client? And, well, manning up and standing up for what's right for our clients? Or do we want to be glorified admins?

PR should totally have the BSD mentality, knowing that it's the top dog and top of its game. We've lost that, we've become eunuchs and let social media "gurus" and "experts" walk in with the BSD mentality ... when they have nothing there.
  1. Call me Howard Beale because after reading your post, I feel like yelling "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!" I think you're on the right track for a PR revolution...

    All very valid points. While I have only worked at one agency, I found myself nodding my head and remembering some of the sins committed at that time-- insane client demands not managed, ridiculous media pitches, stonewalling incoming media requests, general "yes men-ery" behavior.

    Yuck. Needless to say, I am no longer in the agency game. I'd be lying if I said some of that foolery didn't factor into my decision to leave it also.

    My hope for my fellow PR colleagues who are still in agencies and dealing with clients is that they get the fire back in their bellies to lead the charge and take back what makes PR a great profession to begin with.

  2. George Johnson4/13/2011 05:50:00 AM

    I retired last year after many good years in corporate PR and reputation management. I think you're right on target, public relations is being eaten semi-alive by the boys and girls of marketing. Even the name of my beloved old in-house agency has been changed from "Corporate Communications" to "Marketing Communications," and reports to the top lawyer (groan) rather than the CEO. I'm ready for the crusade to save the soul of our profession.

  3. Great post. When I came into public relations I had the benefit of working and learning from some great bosses. It's depressing today to listen to even some quite senior PR people saying "I think we need another name for what we do, nobody likes us any more." B******s, you just need to stand up and fight for what's right.

  4. PR is too busy saying "yes" to the whims of others to notice the fire in their belly fire has been extinguished... F-E-A-R and uncertainty have a funny way of changing things. For now, I'll hope others are inspired by your astute commentary... and, I will do my part to keep the fire burning

  5. This post is sad to read, especially as a public relations student nearing graduation. One of the biggest factors that attracted me to the PR field was the fight. I don't want to be forced to keep quiet or not defend a client because I am afraid to offend anyone. There is obviously a line that should never be crossed, but no PR professional should feel as if they have to walk on eggshells.

    Do you all have any advice for rising PR professionals? What can we do to save this profession and get it back to what it's meant to be?

  6. Sadly, PR has lost much of its teeth in recent years. I always thought of PR being about fighting for you company and fighting about your position. Now it seem to be watered down and more about marketing and ads.

  7. JP calls out something important here that i feel should be used not just to defend the PR executive in times of dichotomous peril (caught between the recommendations of the boss and the desires of the client) but to exemplify the circumstances that PR execs face daily. Has PR lost its balls? No....because it never had balls. The most effective PR executives i know invent their own pairs to push through the thorny path of mismatched boss/client imperatives. As we watch helplessly as PR morphs into something that resembles a frothy oatmeal mixture of sponsorship, marketing, ad sales, event executive and maaaaybe some press coverage, it is indeed critical to remember that our expertise/advice can make the difference between pennies and millions for a client. Thats a responsibility. So instead of complaining about lost phantom balls that never existed in the first place, we should continue to evolve, innovate and inspire without having to force anyones' hand - boss OR client. If we need to convince our client that creating compelling new media content is a good strategy for their brand (with the quick disclaimer that some clients' strategies shoudlnt include this at all, its very client-dependent) you should fire them, because they'll never be happy. If they dont understand the priorities of your practice now, they wont later. And whats worse? They'll have mismanaged expectations from the get-go. Balls or no balls, clear cut strategies and decision making at the beginning, with some adaptation thrown in, goes a long way.

  8. I read your blog on the heels of lunch with a brilliant attorney friend who spends his days defending the guys who pollute and infect and then hide behind the law rather than taking responsibility for their messes. It may be the lunch not quite digesting in my belly, but I'm curious in the PR field when or if there is a higher ethical calling than vigorously defending one's clients.

  9. As someone who's totally new to PR (ish), and I have clients constantly telling me they want a million of this and a million of that...it's nice to hear what I already feel.

    Namely, that good PR counsel is worth a lot of money. And how many BP oil spills do you need before people see the value of it?

    I really, really liked this post. Good stuff! I completely agree!

  10. I completely agree and could probably write a book on my first hand experiences and feelings about what “integrated marketing” has done to the PR industry (tying advertising and PR way too close together), but I think the issue is more visceral and basic.

    It is about money.

    When it comes to “losing the fire,” I fully blame the agency CEOs and upper level managers. Back when I was still in the agency world, the most common question I heard from the CEO was “what else can we bill the client for this month?” We would put all of this great work into landing accounts only to spend more time trying to dream up ways to get their money than we did trying to actually support their PR goals. The idea of disagreeing with a client or causing undue stress was unheard of. It is the primary reason I joined the freelance world – to actually practice PR again.

    I realize we are all here to make money, but PR suffers tremendously when we stop practicing our trade and start worrying about the wrong things. We reward employees for “upping their client budgets” but ignore them when they get that great media placement or speaking opp. Agencies need to refocus their energies and remember that our first job is to open communication between our clients and their audiences.

    As an aside, I think this mentality is one reason we see everyone screaming about how great social media are, when the reality is that SM programs vary in effectiveness from industry to industry – and aren’t always the silver bullet the pundits claim them to be. Agencies don’t look at it as a new communication tool – all they see is another revenue stream (I’m being a little overdramatic, but I think you get the point).


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