How PR is Failing at PR

funny_public_relations_specialist_womens_light_tToday’s guest post is by Peppercommer Lia LoBello.

From March-July of this year, one of my 30-something colleagues led Peppercomm through one of its largest new business pitches in recent memory. The pitch was an opportunity she uncovered from a combination of strategic reading of the business press and good old fashioned detective work. Thanks to her tenacity, Peppercomm was invited to join the RFP in its latest stages, and my colleague spearheaded a team of six people through the entire pitch process. We ultimately did not win the business – we were one of two finalists – but we’re using the lessons learned to pitch several new opportunities just as large.

In July, Peppercomm learned that we had won one of the automotive world’s coolest accounts, MINI Cooper. Adding an account of this genre to the client roster is a banner moment for any communications agency, and this win is a direct result of the efforts of one female director at our firm. Recognizing that a non-traditional approach to brainstorming, pitching, and the presentation was needed, she set about engaging nearly the entire agency to uncover new ways to ideate, package and deliver our thinking. Not only did we win the account, but as an added benefit, this process became the catalyst to re-vamping the way we approach new business and organic growth of accounts thanks to the lessons in creativity and account planning learned.

In the last few months, I’ve also seen female colleagues of all ages ace the bread and butter of PR work – media relations. These colleagues have secured placements for our clients in US News & World Report, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and dozens of other top-tier media outlets.

And I don’t just want to show love to the females I work with. My male colleagues are experts on SEO, Web development and coding, social media, and crisis communications, just to name a few. Yet another may be one of the most talented graphic designers with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to work. And don’t even get me started on two male interns currently wrapping up their work with us this summer, both of whom have secured national media placements, contributed incredible ideas to brainstorms and basically kept their teams running, but now have to leave us so they can, um…graduate from college.

And these are just a handful of examples that I see week in and week out of the types of work my strategic communications firm does.

So why, I ask, when I say that I work in public relations to someone who isn’t in the industry – am I STILL fighting the stereotype that I work with a bunch entitled brats, living for $300 high heels, in apartments paid for by their parents, and clamoring to simply hold the guest list at the next big red carpet event?  It’s a stereotype my colleagues and I are tired of fighting, but I think the bigger problem is – why does it even still exist? Peppercomm, while a unique workplace, is among many hundreds of public relations firms across the nation that conducts important, strategic business and communications work for our clients day in and day out. And yet, this work remains almost invisible to those not connected to the industry.

I’ve thought a lot about this and hit upon a possible answer that seems ironic at best, but contains more nuggets of truth than I’d like to admit. Perhaps the reason public relations and strategic communications work remains such a mystery is that we’re so busy doing the work for our clients, we’re forgetting to do it for ourselves.

How many public relations and communications executives – Steve Cody’s Inc. column notwithstanding – can you name that have regular appearances in business press, either print or broadcast?  I can’t name one save for maybe Donny Deutsch, and he’s technically an advertising guy.

Now compare this to the executives at your firm who contribute regularly to the PR trades. At the major mid-size and large agencies, regular contribution to the trades is a must – but the problem is, we’re violating one of the main tenets of public relations – stop talking to yourself and expand your potential audience.

It doesn’t help that television has also painted a grossly incorrect stereotype of the profession. Though no longer on air, shows like ‘Kell on Earth’ and ‘PoweR Girls’ did nothing to advance notions of what public relations actually entails. Neither did Samantha Jones of ‘Sex and the City.’ (And while the type of PR portrayed on these shows certainly have a place in the industry, it’s simply not representative of whole.)  Even worse, despite an above-average amount of television consumption, I’m hard pressed to think of any more recent or relevant examples than these three of any PR professionals even on television.

So what can we do to change the tide? Just about everything. It’s time we started treating our industry and its thought leaders like we do our clients.

1.)    Conduct Proactive, Strategic Media Relations. In every agency, and every organization, there are executives that are smart, strategic, and relatable.  We need to place those people front and center in the media.  So when Chick-Fil-A announces it doesn’t support gay marriage or an Abercrombie + Fitch is seen as fat-shaming customers, agency thought leaders should be pitched to every television show, newspaper and radio program to discuss how this affects those organizations’ image, reputation, short-term gains and long-term profits. This will show audiences the type of strategic thinking the communications function brings to the table.
2.)    Find Speaking Opportunities. Why aren’t more Chief Communications Officers and Chief Marketing Officers speaking at major venues like CGI or TED? Perhaps more so than any other function in the C-suite, these thought leaders have incredible insight into what consumers want, how they are digesting information, and how the business world can respond in disruptive and innovative ways. We need these executives rubbing elbows with other creative thinkers and sharing their unique insights. We need to elevate these executives to the same level of respect received by Chief Financial Officers and Chief Executive Officers. Simply put, if a CCO or CMO isn’t doing their job well, a CFO or CEO won’t be doing theirs well either.
3.)    Utilize Social Media. Many PR executives have blogs and/or Twitter handles, but how many are using these platforms to capture the attention of the larger business community? We’re living in an age where at any moment, any corporation, brand name, or celebrity can encounter a communications or public relations crisis. Are we using our platforms to offer advice, strategic counsel or engage journalists in thoughtful dialog on fall out as they happen? Or are we Monday morning quarter backing “what it all means?” It’s time to use real-time platforms in actual real-time and become a driver of conversation and ideas – not just making case studies of them.

Every day I get to come to work with people, of all ages, genders and races, who inspire me to bring my A-game, who blow me away with their creativity, and who wow me with their incredible ideas and business acumen. I offer the above suggestions and critiques on the industry not with derision, but from an absolutely genuine desire to want others in the business community to see what I get to see on a daily basis – smart people doing great work.

15 thoughts on “How PR is Failing at PR

  1. I’ve been saying for years that the industry trade association (PRSA here in the U.S.) should be the one to lead the charge in a PR for PR effort. I do agree that others in PR — agency heads and PR heads on the client side — should also be out there beating the drum.

    • David, That is a fabulous idea. Here at Peppercomm, I actually do the media relations for a well-known professional organization, so I know first-hand how effective that can be. Yet another ironic twist to this notion – that we don’t have a media relations team that can bring opportunities to the organization. I’ll talk to the PRSA members here that might be able to start making a difference on that front.

  2. Shankman’s in the biz press all the time. So is Edelman — and a bunch of his people like Armano and Rubel. Rubel is in the news about every day. Even Sir Martin Sorrell, though you have to enjoy the Financial Times to see him, and of course you’d have a credible advertising argument.

    • These are good examples, Frank – thanks for sharing. Shankman I take with a grain of salt, because I don’t know how well he has his finger on the pulse of campaigns, strategy, etc. – but the rest are good examples. My only issue is that these are only three folks, and also all male. It would also be great to have some female representatives out there, too. But y these are three solid thought leaders who are out there talking.

  3. This is commonly known as the cobblers’ children having no shoes of course. I think that much of what you advocate is right in addressing reputation of PR practitioners – certainly in ensuring that those who represent the industry in public are not the normal self-publicists and other numpties.

    One thing that we also need to do is ensure that women in this industry take a higher profile as professionals rather than simply the PR bunny image being portrayed. I wondered in my latest post though if we are up to the job:

    Of course, I believe that we are, but as you suggest and this Huffington Post piece argues, we need to get out there and be leaders:

    • Heather,
      Thank you so much for sharing these articles – I haven’t seen these and can’t wait to take a read. From your summary, I am with you 100 percent. One of the things I like about Peppercomm is the gender mix we have here – all of my previous jobs save one were with women only. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about styles of communication from watching the differences between how male and female colleagues make decisions and articulate thoughts. I think I communicate better a result, particularly now that I’m in a leadership role. Looking forward to reading your post and the HuffPo piece.

  4. The only senior-level PR person that I see appearing on TV with any regularity is Howard Bragman — again from the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry “defines” PR to the masses with TV shows that focus on Hollywood publicists and red carpet events. Corporate communications and serious strategic campaigns are topics probably considered too boring for a spot on a Sunday morning business show.

    • Hi Julie,
      You’re right – I’ve seen Bragman as well. I’d like to think the corp comm conversations and campaign topics would be just as interesting to some, as I consider topics interesting to others boring to me. (Like deep finance.) I’d also love to think that we can pitch interesting segments about ourselves just like we do our clients whose news might not be compelling at first blush. In any case, the nut is that we have a lot of work to do.

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  6. Very well done, Lia. PR does do a lousy job of explaining how much superb, strategic work we do. But, there’s a reason why so few senior executives at global agencies or public corporations advocate for PR. The former report to ad agency-focused boards while the latter are very relucatant to risk their stock options. As a result, we allow Hollywood to define who we are and what we do. I’d like to think that will change some day soon, but I doubt it.

    • Thanks, Steve. I’d like to think change is on the horizon as well, but there are a lot of steps to take between now and then. Maybe some enterprising young folks, like the ones we have here at Peppercomm, can hep this change happen.