Flack. Spinster. Spin doctor. Liar. These are just some of the epithets that journalists (and well, the general public) call public relations professionals. Digiday reached out to a seasoned public relations executive at a large agency about the love/hate relationship between hack and flack, the revolving door that seems to be an epidemic in the industry and the difference between publicity and strategic communications. I know this world all too well, as I am a recovering PR pro. Please contact me at the email address at the bottom of this article if you would like to participate in giving an honest take on what your job in digital media is really like.
Who’s more unreasonable: your client or your boss?
The most unreasonable are the clients, and even with the headaches of a burgeoning internal bureaucracy, the job really wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the clients. For all their unreasonableness, external PR folks have been in your shoes before and can be somewhat reasoned with on a peer level. Internal comms counterparts are living in a la-la land of expectations that the kitchen sink is included when they only bought some new drapes to the living room. Even if they come from the agency side and defect, the move to internal comm team seems to erase all memory of realism and the realm of possible execution of comms strategy by mere mortals. What do you mean you can’t call that editor and tell him to delay/rewrite/postpone the special section to coincide with our announcement he’s not interested in anyway?! Mush on, mush!
It’s no secret PR pros and journalists have a love/hate relationship. Tell me about some of the horror stories of working with journalists.
I’m a bit more old school and think that the journos’ and flacks’ successes are innately tied. If both sides are honest in working toward a fruitful relationship that is mutually beneficial, there is an understanding that its more valuable to care for one another than preach fake love and senseless hate. The bad news is that glory and ego overshadow rationale. Reporters can be and often are dicks to PR people because of more than a few bad apples that spoiled it all for the rest of us (probably magnified by the fact that even the most seasoned reporters often make less money than the PR person on the other side of the phone). The PR people who take this personally wind up feeding the stereotype as opposed to working on mending fences and working to change the cliché perceptions the media has of us. Broken embargoes, unnamed sources to financial dealings, using competitor B-roll in your feature segment, idiotic lack of fact checking and resentment in issuing corresponding corrections are all horror stories that PR folks have to deal with. Try explaining to a client that the CEO’s misspelled last name is in fact not your fault.
How much influence does a relationship with a reporter have on the coverage that you’re seeking?
Relationships are everything. We all know that reporters screen their calls — if you’re just finding this out now, you need a new day job. If anything, a relationship helps you actually talk as opposed to exchange faceless emails and trade talking points. If you’ve proven to be an asset before, most journalists will tap you again and again for sources; that’s the ecosystem of media relations, and a good relationship is the photosynthesis within. I am a firm believer that you cannot be a good PR professional without having a cadre of contacts whom you can call and just test whether the Kool-Aid you’ve been force-fed by your client can actually pass muster in the press, objectively. It’s great to make friends with journalists and share brews or booze in a social setting, both to bridge the gap between our industries and to have another person to drink with. Making friends is more fruitful than a front-page story, though that’s nice too.
There’s a revolving door problem in PR. Both on the employee side and on the client side. Why do you think this is?
The problem is twofold. On the one hand, the pay is always better in an industry that relies on leapfrogging for advancement. On the other, and what I feel to be the real issue, is the boredom factor. The boredom factor is what happens when your life enters into a cyclical state of just going through the motions, and the only thing that changes in your client strategy is the year on top of your annual plans. It can also be manifested when the agency ‘brands’ a staffer to be good at X, and then he or she is pretty much tasked with X all the time, leaving no room to expand or do something new. Stifling creativity in an industry where there are so many other brands you can work for, make a difference for, advocate on behalf of, or just tell people you work on, has a lot to do with why people leave so often. Grass is always greener, though. You can hate where you do what you do, but you have to love what you do first. If you can’t say that, the place or the brand, the executive or campaign will not make a difference.
Any thoughts on different types of PR — publicity vs. strategic communications?
When I first started in the industry, I thought PR was just Lizzie Grubman. It clearly is so much more than that when you’re in it, but to outsiders, I can’t help but feel they all judge us on her level as the party planning, glitzy celeb mules, product-placement pushers and air-headed messengers of the apocalypse image that comes with “publicity.” Truthfully and seriously though, I think there are ample smart people and more than enough airheads in each type of PR. Neither is above nor below the other. A tactic is a tactic, and Kool-Aid probably all tastes the same. I happen to prefer to take my masochistic dose in the boardroom vs. at a wine party. … Hm, when put that way, I’m not sure I’m making the right decision.