I recently had a conversation with a respected communications professional and Head of a Dutch PR agency about what’s currently going wrong in the PR profession, if you look at the recent unfavourable news articles of brands like ING and Philip Morris.
Related ING news
Related Philip Morris news
Do brands really care about their reputations?
Either brands don’t think they need PR support or they hire junior PRs who not only miss the necessary experience on the job but also miss the analytical skills and don’t know how a journalist writes a news article. They miss an interest in and understanding of which questions a journalist is expected to ask and what the news will be that a journalist will highlight in the final publication.
Another concern is that even if the PR professional has these what I call journalism skills, if a CEO or executive is allergic to controversy or has too big of an ego to listen to your advice, the added value of the PR professional will remain unnoticed. Therefore it’s so important that PR professionals are a trusted partner. In the end, our only interest is the reputation of the company. There is no hidden agenda.
There are skilled PR professionals, myself included, that proof that you don’t need to be a former journalist to be a good PR professional, but you do need to be able to research and study the work of the journalist, assume the role of the journalist and have a deep journalism interest. You need to have the necessary journalism skills AND be able to convince executives to follow your advice. A good PR professional should be able to understand the possible impact of a company news story on multiple stakeholders and develop a strategy. If they are smart, executives hire skilled PR professionals and listen to their PR advice.
In this Financial Times article, quotes are included of a few and mainly financial services companies. The concern I have after reading this article is the Public Relations professional image presented. Did the journalist interview more people and is the view presented in her article a fair and representative view of a large and diverse group, or, did she only speak with a small group, mainly working in the financial services industry?
Should the Public Relations industry be concerned?
There is a lack of understanding and need to explain our added value. Therefore, a few observations and suggestions from my experience:
1. It might work short term for investors and private equity managers to do their own PR or via their assistants. I would not want to risk though not to be prepared for a crisis or a big issue. Reputations are easily damaged but more difficult to build. In addition, it’s worthwhile investing in a pro-active media campaign to make sure that the company’s strategy is well communicated to the right internal and external stakeholders and that good news is filtered through via the right owned, earned, paid media and social media channels.
2. It helped most CEO and executives I worked with to sit down for a couple of hours and structure his/her key messages and help build his/her story before a specific event and audience. A skilled PR expert knows when to advice a “safe” message and when to be outspoken. It all depends on the goal of the message and the ability of forward thinking, already thinking now about the longer-term consequence of delivering a certain message.
3. As a former SVP Corporate Communications for a mid-sized asset manager I can relate to the decision to assign the role of liaising with the press to a few executives who are also experts in the company’s affairs such as pensions. This can work very well indeed for liaising with certain media about certain expert topics. Also in this example though, the added value of the good PR professional is certainly there:
Firstly, training should be part of every PR professional’s agenda. Media Management and Message House training is needed so that any media engagement is effective for both the journalist and the company. The investor talking heads I trained thought it was extremely helpful to learn how to structure and improve their messages and learn bridge techniques. Since they were only used to speak with professionals in their trade they were not used to adapt their story for different audiences and how to make their story more interesting for the media.
Secondly, think about the relation with the journalist, which is extremely valuable to have managed at a central PR department. I have experienced many examples that an executive with direct media contacts suddenly did not want to talk with the journalist anymore. Managing this issue with journalist and internal executive is extremely important for future relations.
Thirdly, another reason for having a good PR expert involved in this case, is that executives and experts on specific topics might not have the umbrella view of what’s going on elsewhere related to the company. Managing upcoming surprises in the media by pre-informing executives is important to the CEO, the Supervisory Board and other senior management of the company. Client letters might already need to be prepared!
4. Executives at the multinational I have worked for almost 7 years were thoroughly prepped for every press conference by a small professional team, being the Head of Investor Relations, 2 advisors of our financial PR agency, the Corporate Relations Director and myself. We did every time a dry run of the press conference, including preparing them for all possible difficult questions we expected. In the actual public Q&A session of the press conference, because they were so well prepared, they followed the script while answering questions more naturally.
5. Those who employ a marketing executive who deals with press releases, clearly are not convinced that strategic communications is a key part of the success of their business. Brands however benefit from a good understanding of integrated internal and external paid, owned and earned communications objectives and strategies.