PR Week's March issue features an agency summit in which “CEOs from nine leading firms met to discuss how PR can continue boosting its stock at the highest business levels.” Typically, the Summit Nine featured the CEOs of six holding company firms (or those owned or formerly owned by holding companies), three independents and no, repeat NO, owners of small or boutique firms. So much for a representative sampling.
The summit touched on many, time-worn subjects:
– PR earning a seat at the C-suite table. Attendees patted one another on the back for having done so. This, despite major stories last week about Unilever and P&G gutting their agency relationships and in one case, calling them 'unnecessary expenses'.
– PR being best positioned to take the lead in the social media war. (There was no discussion whatsoever about all the advertising and digital shops bolting on PR functions and telling clients THEY should take the lead since they can now do it all).
– Measurement. There was nothing new here at all, since no one has yet to invent a silver bullet.
– PR's image as spin doctors (a decent discourse, but no comment whatsoever on Hollywood's influence in depicting publicists as bubble-headed, party-planners, or what industry leaders should do about it).
The only semblance of controversy came when Margery Krauss of APCO (formerly owned by a holding company) and Aedhmar Hynes of Text 100 rightly called out the holding companies for fighting with their sibling agencies over who gets what share of a client's budget. Harris Diamond, who holds some uber title at Weber's parent, said independent firms do the same. Maybe Edelman does, but the vast majority don’t (and, clients need to know that internecine warfare not only runs amok within holding companies, but does so to their detriment).
Instead of addressing tough and uncomfortable questions, the summit ended with a feeling of euphoria, leading the reader to believe it was great to be alive, practicing PR and living in America. Indeed, the tone reminded me of Ronald Reagan's seminal 'It's Morning in America' theme that swept him to reelection in 1984, conveniently overlooking the growing disproportion of haves and have nots that Reganomics was beginning to spawn and which would lead to the 2008 market meltdown.
If I had been facilitating the agency summit discussion, I'd have asked very different questions:
– What are we doing about the fact our entire industry will soon be 90 percent female (and overwhelmingly white)?
– What are the agency leaders doing to address serial clients, who change PR firms as often as Don Draper switches shirts after an all-night bender?
– Why is our entire industry overlooking the importance of customer experience and not realizing that it's no longer what a brand says, but what a shopper experiences, that matters?
– How can the badly broken industry awards program be level set so that more small, boutique firms can submit as many entries as the top 10, deep-pocketed ones do?
– If clients can bypass the media and reach audiences with their own content, who needs a PR firm?
– How do we deal with the rampant age discrimination that has left tens of thousands of 50-something PR executives hopelessly unemployed? Ad Age published a fascinating cover story on the subject a month or so back.
– The bait-and-switch new business tactics that disenchanted prospective clients tell me are still pervasive among the holding companies?
– How the holding companies can continually report upbeat quarterly earnings statements while at the same time quietly reporting yet another downsizing?
The Fourth Estate rose to prominence in our fledgling democracy because the founding fathers saw a need for a free and unfettered press to hold the government accountable. The same holds true for every industry of note. So, why don't we ever see the tough issues being addressed by The Holmes Report, Bulldog or PR Week?
If a visitor from outer space, intent on learning more about America's PR machine, were to rely solely on the trade press for source material, 'It' would not only believe it's morning in America again, it would also be convinced the sun never sets on the American PR agency empire.