PR has a PR Problem…and it’s Journalists, Pt. I

Late last night, as I sat grading final projects from my PR writing students, I had one of the all-news TV stations droning on in the background for the noise to keep me going, I heard it. The “P” word. Actually, he said the “P words – plural.

PR Problem.

As in, “that company has a PR problem,” meaning that company has been caught with doing something it shouldn’t  and now needs to whitewash its sins. Cue the insincere gaggle of spinmeisters, racing in to dish out the fluff, to distract everyone and make it all better so the company can go back to business as usual, screwing the public. Hmmm….sorry, I don’t see any racing going on.

In a way, it’s not the fault of the anchor tasked with filling that particular hour on a Friday evening with trying to make the endless repetition of news interesting. He was just using a term that is all too common in the news media. And it’s our fault – we PR people. We allowed it to happen. And now we’re paying for it… and I’m fed up with it.

It’s no secret that the PR profession has more than its share of people who don’t belong in it. People who can’t write, can’t spell, and think that there’s nothing more to it than being a “people person” with “charisma” [insert your best high school voice here]. As a professional wordsmith and teach of PR writing, this drives me nuts. Journalism has its share of the guilty as well, which is the topic of another blog post.

For most of the last century and this one, journalists have seen themselves guardians of the public, watchdogs for the voiceless, enshrined in the aura of the Bill of Rights. PR people, on the other hand are the Evil Ones, corrupt purveyors of the Dark Arts, sinister shadowy beings….well, you get the idea.

PR execs tend to have a deep-seated respect for reporters and the journalistic world. Many of us started out as journalists, others were taught in college that journalists were the ultimate wordsmiths. We grew up idolizing Edward R. Murrow, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Walter Cronkite and others of their ilk. After all, who else spends so much time studying reporters, their habits and preferences? We obsess over every interaction, every word, every contact with reporters. Major companies such as Cision, Vocus, BurrellesLuce and others provide detailed dossiers on what subjects they cover, and how they prefer to be contacted. We’re more obsessed with them than the most dedicated stalker.

And how is that devotion returned? Journalists casually use terms like “PR ploy, PR problem, flacks,” etc., as their favorite pejorative, to the point where PR has become synonymous with lies, cover ups, corruption and any number of other sins. Don’t believe me? Just Google “Journalists hate PR.”

And in our reverence and reluctance to cross those almighty reporters who hold the key to coverage of our clients, we have allowed them to saddle our profession with a reputation it doesn’t deserve.

We can’t afford to live in fear of the Big Bad Reporter anymore. According to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists:

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

[Emphasis mine]

That goes for accidental, casual distortion as well. I think it’s time that journalists reexamine their choice of words, and stop unfairly maligning the public relations profession. For the good of both PR and journalism, we need to speak up when we as a profession are unfairly maligned.

More on this topic later.


Farewell to Arthur Yann, APR

Last Thursday night, Arthur Yann, Vice President of Public Relations for the Public Relations Society of America, was doing something most of us do every day. He was

Arthur Yann, APR
1964 – 2013

commuting home from a long day at work when he suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. He was only 48. Just a few months younger than I am. In the same profession, doing the same things I do every day. It’s more than a shock – it’s just surreal. People our age don’t just suddenly die without warning. But he did. He left behind his wife Amy and his young daughter, Sofia, and lots of memories.

I first met Arthur at one of PRSA’s national Assemblies, the governing body of the professional society of which we are both members. Arthur was just settling into his role at PRSA; I was in my first year as a delegate representing my chapter. But I really got to know Arthur during the debate over the accreditation requirement for PRSA officers as part of our massive bylaws revision a few years ago. The delegates’ conference calls leading up to the Assembly were almost exclusively focused on this issue, and it engendered many passionate discussions. It also attracted the attention of a perennial PRSA gadfly, who sought to distort the debates as a tool in his never-ending vendetta against PRSA, and decided to use me as one of his tools. He did so by doctoring quotes and attributing them to me.

People who know me know that I am passionate about this profession, and I am extremely vocal about it. I generally don’t have to explain who I am to the staff at PRSA in New York. Being somewhat mouthy, as soon as I found out about the quotes I immediately spoke out against this publicly, and since it involved PRSA, I gave Arthur a call to give him a heads up. The gadfly was persistent…and so was I. Which means Arthur and I got acquainted rather quickly over the whole issue. It became an annual event for a few years, up to and including last fall’s International Conference.

When I feel strongly about something that attacks me personally, I can get pretty scathing, and Arthur had the unenviable task more than once of lowering my professional pressure gauge to manageable levels,  getting me to voluntarily edit out some of my harsher rhetoric even though, in my opinion, it was my best writing.

He had a wonderful sense of humor, which is a must-have quality for this profession, especially when you are the PR person for the PR profession’s association. It was never more on display than at last fall’s Assembly, when we were talking in the back of the room during a break about our latest favorite single malt scotch. The members of the national nominating committee had a prank planned on Committee Chair Gary McCormick involving those countertop bells you see in businesses. A committee member walked up to me to get a bell – and I was caught red-handed. Arthur stopped mid-sentence, laughed, and then just asked if I had any spares.

The last time I talked to Arthur, we joked that one of these days we were going to gather the scotch drinkers at the conference for an evening sampling single malts and swapping favorites. We’d talked about doing it off and on, but it always ended up being “next year.” Unfortunately, we won’t get that chance now. But this fall, I will make sure that “next year” becomes “this year” – even though it won’t be the same without him. And I’ll never put off seeing friends again. Another lesson learned from Arthur.

Arthur meant a great deal to our profession, and everyone who knew him is grieving his loss. I can’t imagine how his wife and daughter feel at this moment, losing him so suddenly, and so close to Father’s Day. I know the Assembly and PRSA won’t be the same now. I hope some of the stories being shared on various blogs and PRSA’s Facebook page will bring comfort to his family. Amy and Sofia, please know you are in our thoughts and prayers.

Slainté, Arthur.

Note: Additional tributes to Arthur from Bill Murray at PRSA can be found at In Memoriam Arthur Yann, from Gini Dietrich at Rest in Peace Arthur Yann, and from Martin Waxman at A Tribute to Arthur Yann, APR


Sunday Coffee Contemplations: Advertising’s Struggle for Relevance

Ignoring AdvertisingAt first, I thought this post would be about the dangers of thinking a particular communication tool, social media, is the strategy. But as I reread Scott Elser’s column in Inc., “Is Social Media Advertising or PR,” I realized it’s the desperation of advertising’s search for relevance in an environment that is increasingly becoming adept at tuning it out. Elser claims:

Advertising is far more connected to day-to-day business strategy and the objectives associated with specific products and services. Advertisers are focused more on achieving measurable results and meeting actual sales goals. As investment in social increases, return on investment will become an increasingly important metric. And social media will need to be closely aligned with product news, promotional offers and customer segmentation to drive real success. In other words, the expertise required for future tangible social success clearly lies with the advertising team.

Really? You want to kill social media completely by using it to advertise?

The London-based market research firm Fournaise Marketing Group reported that in 2011, on average, consumer response to marketing messages declined 19% compared to the first half of 2010. The Star Group reported on their blog that, “In tracking cross-channel (online and offline) ad campaigns across 20 different countries, the report showed that the hardest areas hit were the “mature markets” – the US, Europe and Australia, who saw a decrease in customer engagement and response of 23%.”

A Nielsen study reported that “92% of consumers say they trust word-of-mouth recommendations, less than half trust paid ads in traditional media outlets. The trust in these ads has declined by more than 20% since 2009. The level of trust in traditional advertising declined by more than 20%”

One of the reasons given for this decrease was “Ads have no redeeming value.”


That’s pretty harsh, especially following the 2002 publication of The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR by Al and Laura Ries, and it’s unflinching look at the advertising’s shortcomings when it comes to launching a product.

The first assignment my PR & advertising writing students are handed is to spend a few hours observing the world around them and list the advertisements they see. Then they are to analyze them, noting which ones resonated, and which ones don’t. I ask them to point out the ones they believe don’t work, and tell me why that is. Their answers should scare every advertising person out there.

  • I never noticed how many ads there are because I tune them all out.
  • They’re boring.
  • I normally never notice advertising – they’re just there.
  • I never realized just how many brands were just sitting there, advertising to us.
  • Our society is being thrown advertisements 24/7, yet we fail to realize it anymore because we have almost become numb to it.

The only time we really pay attention to advertising is during the Super Bowl season, and that’s only because it’s no longer advertising, it’s entertainment. If advertising can no longer accomplish even the basic task of gaining the attention of the audience, much less sell the product, what’s left? Retreating to the siege mentality of the previous century and trying to claim social media as advertising’s territory is misguided and smacks of desperation.

If advertising wants to be successful, it needs to take a look at itself and how it reaches out to people, not try to find just one more way to blast out ads at people. If they don’t, the end result for social media will just be one more way people ignore companies.



Staples Stepping Over the Privacy Line?

Yesterday, I visited to check the price of an item before heading over to my local store. Today, I received this in my email:

I understand the need for cookies to allow pages to load faster – I get it, I truly do. But I was on a brand new computer that I’d never used to go to I didn’t sign in, I didn’t place anything in a shopping cart, nothing. PLUS, I use a completely different email address for rewards programs, to keep ads and promo emails under control. Yet Staples tracked me back to my email, I assume through my IP address.

Staples is obviously aware that this is a potential issue. When I unsubscribed from receiving emails from them, I was presented with a screen asking my why I was unsubscribing. Take a look at choice #6: “Staples emails are too relevant (feel watched).

Is this stepping over the privacy line to the point of irritating customers? Does it make you “feel watched?” I know it did me.

Your thoughts?






I Don’t Need Memory, I Have the Internet!

I don’t need memory, I have the Internet!

A recently graduated friend of mine surprised me with this statement some time back. At first, I laughed it off as just one more difference between my Baby Boomer self and those of the “Connected Generation,” but the more I think about it, the more I have to wonder if that isn’t a dangerous development in how we use our brains. Today on Facebook, a group of us joked that when the Internet goes down, we forget our computers can do other things. Continue reading


Off But Yet On Topic: The 10 Things I Want to Do Before I Die

Thanks to one of my favorite PR people/bloggers, Gini Dietrich and her blog Spin Sucks, I was treated to a very thought-provoking blog post from Jayme Soulati (@Soulati) on hopes, dreams and wishes, both unfulfillable and yet to be fulfilled. Jayme decided to use her blog to ponder whether we are satisfied with our lives’ achievements after watching Johnny Cash’s final performance. Jayme asked her readers:

Was he satisfied with his life’s achievements? Would you be?

I have so much to do, and I challenge you to carry this series forward. Write a list of 20 things you still want to accomplish before you leave this world and stamp them on the blogosphere as part of your legacy. I have a hunch why this inspiration (which can be positive or not) hit me, and I’m going to make an indelible mark right here.

So following Jayme’s lead, here are the 20 things I want to do before I die:

  1.  Complete NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and get it published.
  2. Acquire perfect grammar/punctuation skills.
  3. Write a PR book – no, write two! And yes, I already know the topics.
  4. Leave the world a better place than it currently is today by eliminating gender and sexual orientation discrimination.
  5. Create and/or fund two scholarships: one for PRSSA students at my alma mater, Illinois State University; and one for my sorority sisters of ΚΛΙ, the Clionian Literary Society of McKendree University.
  6. Spend two weeks in Tahiti.
  7. Have a perfectly clean house.
  8. Tour England and Scotland, to pay homage to the great literature and authors I studied in college as an English lit major.
  9. Get my motorcycle license so I follow Steppenwolf’s advice to, “get your motor running/get out on the highway.”
  10. See my husband’s paintings hanging in an art gallery.
  11. Locate definitive evidence of my native American ancestors – difficult, when they had to hide their race when they made mixed marriages to protect their families from discrimination.
  12. Pay off all my bills, especially my student loans.
  13. Earn my PhD in public relations.
  14. Figure out how my husband’s brain works.
  15. Locate a missing relative.
  16. Finally lose the extra weight I’ve carried around for the past few years.
  17. Hit a hole-in-one at the Old Course at St. Andrews….or heck, just hit a hole-in-one anywhere.
  18. Crew on a boat in the Mack.
  19. Never let my furry children grow old.
  20. Meet Nathan Fillion, aka “Captain Tightpants,” over drinks.

If I’d written this just a few days ago, I would have added one more: “To be an Illinois Jaycee Ambassador.”  That belongs in the category of “things I have no control over” and would have been something I considered unfulfillable, because my Jaycee career was long over. However, just this past Saturday, I was surprised by the current Chief Ambassador and Jaycee friends past and present with Ambassadorship #262. So don’t give up on your personal and professional dreams – you never know when the most outlandish one will come true.

So in the spirit of hopes and dreams, what’s on your list?


Survival Tips for the Solo PR Practitioner

Being fortunate enough to be a speaker at the PRSA Midwest District Conference in Chicago on July 19-20, I spent some time pulling together some survival tips for PR freelancers, based on my experiences with my partners in launching Quicksilver Edge Strategic Communications: Continue reading


What We Have Here is a Failure to THINK – Susan G. Komen and Sunday Coffee Contemplations

Could the ongoing Komen PR crisis have been avoided? Yes, simply by taking a step back and THINKING before acting. Komen didn’t take the time to THINK the situation through, to examine their actions from beyond the insiders’ perspective, and so they didn’t anticipate the overpowering backlash against their decision that resulted. Instead of remaining focused on their reason for existing, preventing and curing breast cancer, they stepped into a highly charged, highly sensitive political arena that had absolutely nothing to do with the organization’s main mission. They allowed their personal political beliefs to take over the Komen mission. As a result, Komen has damaged its brand, its constituents, and its legacy.

For PR peeps like me, morbidly watching the ongoing trainwreck that is Susan G. Komen is both pathetically funny and sadly predictable. We watched the drama unfold, silently thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t in the shoes of Leslie Aun, Komen’s Vice President of Marketing & Communications. Like many of my colleagues, I engaged in armchair quarterbacking the situation on Twitter and other social media sites. This past Tuesday, I confidently predicted to my class of PR and advertising students the imminent resignation of Komen executive Karen Handel, a former Republican candidate for governor of Georgia who made the defunding of Planned Parenthood a key part of her campaign; she was the apparent driving force behind the action. I gave Handel three days, which turned out to be wildly generous – she was gone before I made it back to my office from class. Continue reading


PR New Year’s Resolutions – Sunday Coffee Contemplations

Happy New Year! It’s time for the obligatory New Year’s resolutions, which as one cartoon I spotted briefly last night and now can’t find, explained as a set of guidelines for the first week of January. I’m starting 2012 with a little more willpower than that, I hope.

So to play my part in this collective exercise, here are my PR resolutions for 2012:

  • I will stop using the words “marketing” or “markets” to describe what public relations does – it is a major contribution to the perpetual confusion surrounding PR in the business world.
  • I will point out professional misbehavior wherever and whenever I find it – it is only by holding ourselves to high professional standards that we, and our profession, will begin to gain the respect we deserve.
  • I correct misrepresentation of my profession when I encounter it, whether it be by journalists or members of the general public.
  • To repay the advice and assistance I received early in my career from veteran colleagues, I will mentor college students and young professionals, as they are the future of our profession.
  • I will educate non-PR business executives of the purpose and role of PR as a distinct business discipline, emphasizing the value of mid-career and senior-level professionals as strategic counselors at the highest levels of business.

What are your PR New Year’s resolutions?

– Debra


Six PR Skills in Short Supply – Sunday Christmas Coffee Contemplations

The end of the year is customarily a time for reflection on the past and prognostications for the future. This past week, PR maven (such an inadequate and overused word for someone who’s so much more) Gini Dietrich posted a list of six skills that every PR pro needs in this digital world on her blog Spin Sucks.

I initially read and agreed wholeheartedly with the list, but as I prepared for the holiday week, the post kept bugging me, popping back up into my thoughts at the oddest moments. Then last night, watching my techno-geek spouse exploring all the latest features on his new smartphone, I realized why: it’s all tech and marketing oriented. Not that it’s wrong, it isn’t. Gini is focusing on skills that PR needs to acquire to be effective in the future, and everything she listed is a definite must. But I think the present needs some help that it’s not currently getting.

As a profession, we have one advantage that we’re not exploiting to our benefit: our difference from marketing. Continue reading