I originally posted this to my Blogger site — the site that vanished mysteriously some time back. It’s not showing up on Google, so I thought I’d repost:
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Public Relationships (an open letter to PR agencies)
Two articles I read this morning reminded me of an old idea.
Among my peers, the PR industry is regarded with considerable skepticism, to put it mildly. In my time with New Science Associates and writing Esther’s newsletter, I appreciated most of the PR professionals I dealt with. I had no misconceptions about how they went about their business or how they prepped their clients for meetings with me (“mention online communities, he loves them!”), but I found the relationships mutually beneficial overall.
For example, one of my practices was to end all briefings with the question, “what can I answer for you?,” after I had offered the best feedback I could during the briefings, which I treated as mini consulting sessions. I found that the best PR people figured this out and used me often as a sounding board. They got early pitch advice (“we’re 20 slides into your pitch and I have no idea what you do; there’s a problem here”) and I got to see things in earlier stages, blunders still included. I wasn’t in any rush to scoop anyone, so they didn’t get bad press from these mistakes.
Fast-forward almost a decade, during which I’ve spent considerable time pondering the word “consumer” and its many implications. Along that path, I learned more about the checkered history of PR, but I also started thinking about potential paths out of our consumer-capitalist trap. In that spirit, I present the following suggestion to corporate executives who deal with Public Relations:
What if your Public Relations department became the Public Relationships department? What if its new mission were to help individuals and groups inside your company form better authentic relationships with their various publics outside?
To do this, your PR team would improve disclosure, increase transparency, train everyone, seek opportunities, make introductions and then get out of the way. They would be open-communication consultants, looking for places where your company is screwing up by behaving in less-than-credible ways, and helping heal the problems rather than buff them up and spin outsiders.
Be prepared for plenty of justifiable skepticism from the outside. Your PR executives may currently have little credibility outside, even if they have been practicing their trade with great integrity.
That doesn’t mean they can’t get to work inside your company. Many PR practitioners already emphasize building relationships between their key staff and members of the press and analysts. I’m suggesting they go much further, that they become internal activists for transparency and relationship-building at all levels.
This may sound impossible, or at least improbable. It may also sound easy to game. I can see many a rebranding effort (come see our new Public Relationships department!) without the requisite rethinking and tearing apart that I believe is necessary. This is not easy.
Or is it? In some sense, what Scoble is doing for Microsoft with Channel 9 is in this direction.
Goodness knows that Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s eternal PR company, has done absolutely nothing to defend or improve the company’s reputation over these many controversial years. Or maybe it has, and things would be worse.
Maybe the big question is whether and how PR departments and agencies can become credible Public Relationships specialists.