Beyond Buzz: What's Public Relations Really About?

Spring 2013

Beyond Buzz

What’s Public Relations Really About?tcbrPDF normal

Few CEOs would recognize effective PR counsel if they tripped over it.

By Dick Martin

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Dick Martin is author of several books, including most recently OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse and Divisive World. Previously, he spent thirty-two years with AT&T, including five as executive VP of public relations, employee communications, and brand management.

martin1Biologists and dry cleaners claim the odor of a skunk can linger for months. That’s nothing compared to the stink that attaches to public-relations people. And no tomato-juice bath will help.

I exaggerate. But just a little. And the blame for those malodorous associations lies squarely with the CEOs and boards whose misguided expectations turn intelligent, honorable people into Orwellian message managers.

When New York Times media reporter David Carr observed that many corporate PR people “ladle out slop meant to obscure rather than to reveal,” he could have been working from their implicit job description. Even when PR people seem “professional, courteous and fair-minded,” Carr wrote, they’re capable of running “black ops” operations designed to “intimidate reporters” or to get ahead of a story with “nonsense counter-spin.” Why? Because that’s what the typical CEO expects—whatever it takes to make reading the morning paper an indigestion-free exercise.

Most journalists—with the possible exception of David Carr—accept this as the price they have to pay for access to the information and decision-makers they need to do their jobs. But many don’t think PR people are all that knowledgeable about the companies they represent. Many consider them flacks who have memorized a few facts about their company but are constitutionally incapable of acknowledging anything that might dim the halo they’ve hung over their clients’ heads.

Some senior PR people have attempted to dodge the broad brush of such criticism, while simultaneously insinuating themselves into the exalted ranks of the corporate C-suite by changing their titles to something like Chief Communication Officer. Alas, that solution is not even as deep as the embossing on their business cards.

Consider, for example, that their cousins in political PR are the lifeblood of most TV talk shows. Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos worked in the Nixon and Clinton press offices. Chris Matthews and Peggy Noonan wrote speeches for presidents Carter and Reagan. And the late William Safire went straight from a fifteen-year career in corporate PR to the Nixon White House and on to the columns of The New York Times.

CEOs and their top teams don’t need someone to spin reality for others—they need someone to reveal reality to themselves.

Would Safire have landed such a plum position solely on the strength of his work for All-State Properties, the home builder that unknowingly provided the set for the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate”? I doubt it. PR people are not expected to have much to say on the substance of business or social issues. Political operatives, on the other hand, know their territory, candidate, and issues inside and out. And they’re unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the candidate when necessary. As a result, they effortlessly pirouette from election campaign to media gig, while the PR heads of major companies are as welcome as a skunk at a picnic.

If corporate PR people know less about business than political staffers know about politics, and if they can only see their clients through rose-colored glasses, there’s only one set of people to blame—the CEOs who hire them.

I’ll go further: Few CEOs and boards would recognize genuinely effective PR counsel if they tripped over it. I’ve seen the practice of PR reduced to wordsmithing, story-pitching, glad-handing, and party-planning often enough to know that many senior business executives don’t have the first idea what public relations is all about. To many bean counters, it’s an inconsequential fringe expense. To many marketers, it’s a way to generate free advertising. To many CEOs, it’s a way to burnish the executive image, fill a mythical pool of goodwill, and keep pesky reporters at bay. And to most boards, it’s someone to blame when trouble reaches headline proportions.

Even the Vatican thinks public relations is mostly a matter of message management. In the wake of scandals ranging from accusations of money laundering to confessions of covering up child abuse, the Holy See hired a Fox News reporter as communications adviser. Like any journalist, he sees his role principally as a storyteller. “You’re shaping the message, you’re molding the message, and you’re trying to make sure everyone remains on message,” he told the Associated Press. “And that’s tough.” Indeed, reality has a sneaky way of undermining the most finely crafted message.

Ironically, the very characteristic that most CEOs rode into their corner offices is also their biggest weakness and the primary reason they need PR counsel. Effective CEOs have a laser-like focus on a handful of goals, but they have the peripheral vision of a baby bat. They spend 70 to 80 percent of their time in meetings with other company executives, believing it’s the only way to find out what’s actually going on in their own companies and to get everyone on the same page. But the downside is self-reinforcing executive myopia.

CEOs and their top teams don’t need someone to spin reality for others—they need someone to reveal reality to themselves. When I ran PR for AT&T, I was never once asked to lie. But I often had trouble figuring out the truth. And if I hadn’t participated in the company’s highest councils, I wouldn’t have had a chance.

CEOs—including those in clerical garb—shouldn’t look for advisers familiar with the whys and ways of the media. They need the counsel of someone who understands their business as well as the people running it, but isn’t held hostage to short-term goals such as meeting quarterly earnings. Someone who can provide peripheral vision based on a deep understanding of the world outside the boardroom walls. Someone who can anticipate problems before they arise and help senior executives deal with them squarely, balancing the interests of all the people who contribute to their company’s success and bear the risks of its failures.

The PR industry is full of so-called counselors who do only half the job. Some are all about the company’s “image,” especially as manifest in its CEO. Armed with smoke, mirrors, and follow spots, they confuse celebrity with credibility. They’re all about getting attention and creating buzz. They teach executives how to answer questions not asked and how to wrap themselves in flag, motherhood, and whatever dessert is most typical of the country they happen to be visiting.

Others presume to be the company’s “conscience.” They’re all mouth and no hands. They forget they represent a business. To them, all price increases are a disaster, all layoffs a catastrophe, all controversy an occasion of sin. Like Chicken Little, they are universally ignored and, on their best days, humored. Real PR counselors get into the trenches with their clients, sharing the burden of creating value for customers, employees, investors, and society.

Public relations has two roles: advocacy and counsel. Counsel usually takes a backseat to advocacy, which always seems more urgent at the moment. But effective counsel can make advocacy less critical. Many CEOs look for good writing from their PR counselors because that’s the stuff of advocacy. What they should be looking for is good thinking, which is the foundation of effective counsel.

In a world with few long-lived secrets, your reputation is the product of what you do, more than anything you can say. You don’t need a wordsmith at your elbow when you’re trying to figure out what to do. You need someone who can help you balance the interests of all the people who depend on your company with those of all the people on whom it depends. That simply isn’t possible without a deep knowledge of both. And that, in fact, is the only way to avoid the whiff of failure and scandal.

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