By Jack O’Dwyer, Publisher/Editor, O’Dwyer’s
I’ve seen a remarkable shift in the behavior of corporate and organizational PR people in the past 45 years—from all-out interaction with reporters to the current nearly full flight from them.
PR has taken the path that advertising did back in the 1950s—out the corporate door and into the PR firms.
Companies used to have their own large ad departments that created and placed ads.
But they eventually realized that creativity does not thrive in the hot house of one company. Creative types need the stimulation of other creative hotshots and the chance to work on a variety of assignments.
A similar thing has happened in PR. Almost all of what I call “PR,” meaning ongoing interaction with reporters, has gravitated to the agency side.
It is there that PR pros pursue the Holy Grail of PR—endorsement of your product or service by an expert third party. What others say about you is far more important than what you say about yourself.
These days, that expert can be a blogger as well as a beat reporter or editor with an established news medium.
Trade publications, including the O’Dwyer Co., have long written about the dozen or so PR specialties such as healthcare, tech, financial, food, beauty, travel, etc.
The leading firms in these specialties can easily be found via a search on Google.
We have tracked the explosive growth of PR firms in the past couple of decades with several of them topping the $100 million mark. Growth is often in the double-digits except in years of a general economic slide.
Corporate Side Is a Different World
The corporate and institutional side has become a different world for PR people.
Their every word with reporters is apt to be tracked by corporate management.
A corporate PR executive said in the mid-1990s that corporate PR departments “experience a press call like a drive-by shooting.” Defensiveness was in. “Outreach” to reporters by holding events or just visiting editors at their desks was a tactic that vanished.
Today, that call will not get through at all to a PR pro. It will be intercepted by an assistant who will grill the reporter on the purpose of the call and demand to see the reporter’s “credentials.” The call will then be relayed to PR pros and most probably the legal and financial departments. A reply, if any, will be in the form of an email.
Wendell Potter, 20-year veteran of Cigna who authored Deadly Spin, says that in his experience and that of other corporate PR pros he knows, the only “conversations” with reporters these days is emails.
The late Ted Pincus, founder of Financial Relations Board, the biggest investor relations firm, who spent the last five years of his life as a financial journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote that he was shocked by the sea change in corporate attitudes to the press.
“Profiling hundreds of companies, I’ve seen an amazing syndrome of nervousness, terror and paralysis grip the executive suite,” he said. Email and voicemail were employed as barriers rather than as conduits.
A major element, of course, is the Internet. It provides a frightening deluge of information and has made the lives of reporters far easier and more productive than ever.
Given this background of institutional reticence, I was not at all that surprised on Oct. 15 in Orlando, Fla., when the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) decided that I was no longer welcome after 40 straight years of my covering its legislative Assembly.
Hotel guards and PRSA staffers blocked my way as I attempted to enter the room. No other reporters covered this crucial meeting, either.
Leaders of the PRSA, faced with costs rising faster than revenues and reporting a $852,720 loss for the first nine months of 2011, had put forth a $30 dues increase to $255 that had run into stiff opposition from rank-and-file members.
Leaders and staff did not want this reporter to hear the arguments for and against this hike, as well as details of what programs might have to be cut.
So the solution to just block this reporter from attending did not seem all that strange to them.
No other trade reporter has covered the Assembly for at least 15 years and I didn’t see any of them Saturday.