Tuesday, September 22

Refocusing PR: What It Could Be

In Las Vegas, former public relations representative Lenora Kaplan called it mostly right during an interview with the Las Vegas Business Press as other area professionals lamented the condition of the market.

"The roll of PR is very different from those of us who come from other markets. Basically, it is just media relations, which is only a very small part of the profession," she said. "That's why I'm only working out of market, although I still live in Las Vegas."

I say "mostly" because public relations has taken this turn in other markets too, not only Las Vegas. The challenged status with public relations nationwide is deep enough that people like Geoff Livingston feel rankled anytime someone tries to give him a public relations moniker.

Sure, there are exceptions. Our company knows which handful of public relations firms are capable of more than lackluster writing that passes as a press release in Las Vegas and around the country. We've worked with many as consultants, contractors, and sometimes as a member of the media.

However, most of the rest wouldn't fair well if their client took a 20-question quiz released by Scott Baradell with The Idea Grove. Although skewed toward media relations, the questions he poses mirror many of the complaints about public relations that we hear about everyday.

20 Questions To Ask Your PR Firm By Scott Baradell.

1. Do you routinely catch careless typos and factual inaccuracies in agency-drafted news releases?

2. Do agency-drafted news releases typically exhibit only a superficial understanding of your business?

3. Do agency-drafted news releases too often miss the point, burying important information?

4. Does the agency ask you for ideas more often than it provides you with ideas?

5. Does the agency seem to think PR stands for "press release," churning out releases but not offering other, more creative ways to build your brand?

6. Do agency representatives get the names or titles of your company's senior executives wrong in correspondence and/or conversation?

7. Examine the media list your PR firm uses when distributing your news releases. Are there more than a few inappropriate publications or out-of-date contacts on the list?

8. Do the agency representatives who pitch your company to media on the phone have only a superficial understanding of what your company does?

9. Has the agency ever arranged a meeting with a reporter and your company's executives that didn't seem to have a well-thought-out objective?

10. Has your primary agency contact person changed more than once in the past 12 months?

11. Does your primary contact person seem inexperienced or immature?

12. When you have a problem or concern, must your primary contact generally talk with a supervisor before responding to you?

13. Does the agency send a senior executive to meet with you every couple of months to smooth over complaints about the firm's performance?

14. Does the agency miss deadlines or seem to always be scrambling at the last minute to meet them?

15. Has a journalist ever complained to you about your PR agency?

16. Are the agency's billing statements confusing, so that you're not sure exactly what you're paying for?

17. Does the agency hem and haw when asked the hourly rates of various personnel on your account?

18. Do the agency's billing statements show that more time is spent on client relations (e.g., meetings and correspondence with you) than on actual client service?

19. Does the agency boast about delivering measurable results, but then only give you a list of press mentions that mean nothing to your company's executives?

20. Does it seem like the agency's heart isn't really in it - that it's simply working to get a fee?

A Working Definition of What Public Relations Could Be.

In 2007, Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State University, provided a run down of some classic public relations definitions, including the one I tend to provide students who take Writing for Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In later conversations, he challenged me to write one.

As a strategic communicator who happens to teach a public relations class because of my background in advertising and journalism, I wasn't so sure it was a challenge I wanted to take. However, knowing the public relations industry is in transformation (and I don't mean the desperate grab at social media), I'll need a new one next year. And this is where I am:

Public relations is the art and science of developing and managing immediate and long-term measurable programs that strengthen relationships between the organization and various publics by researching trends within the organization and the environments in which it or its publics exist; determining the impact those trends may have to an organization and those publics; and fostering, facilitating, and providing counsel on the exchange of mutually beneficial communication between the organization and those publics.

It's still clunky, and borrows enough from the classics enough to be unoriginal. But the way I see it, there isn't a need to reinvent public relations; there is only a need to realign it to what it could be, which would allow it to work in tandem with other communication disciplines.

Had public relations been doing this all along in places like Las Vegas, these firms would have predicted the challenges and developed programs that would have softened the damage to their clients on the front end of the economic downturn. They did not. Most of them raised their rates instead. Others claimed added social media service despite continuing to struggle with their own industry. And some, well, they're still busy churning out releases.


Dean at Pro Copy Tips on 9/22/09, 8:00 PM said...

A lot of so-called PR firms these days do little but distribute news releases. Hiring a PR firm should be like choosing an ad agency or consultant. You really have to dig and find out if they're going to be a partner or just a set of hands to process some paperwork.

Rich on 9/23/09, 4:44 PM said...

Hey Dean,

Absolutely correct. Some of them have great presentations, but then their programs are not as polished at their pitches.

Done correctly, public relations can deliver an exceptional amount of value to companies. Unfortunately, the done correctly part is all too often to interpretation.


Scott Baradell on 9/24/09, 8:38 AM said...

Hi Rich, great post and thanks very much for referencing my "assessment quiz." I really wrote it for all those corp comm execs who know -- deep down -- that they need to move on to a new agency, but inertia is holding them back. So hopefully it's setting a very LOW bar for agency performance...

Rich on 9/24/09, 12:22 PM said...


Thanks for dropping by. When I stumbled onto your questions, I thought they would make a great addition to the conversation.

ANd you are right. Even a low bar would be welcomed these days — any bar would do.


Bill Sledzik on 9/29/09, 1:55 PM said...

I like where you're going with that definition, Rich. It has all the elements of PR practice, and yeah, it's still a little clunky.

It's tough to write one streamlined definition that captures the essence of PR. But we gotta get there. CEOs know that marketing helps them sell stuff. Little more need be said. IT provides information CEOs need to run the business. Legal keeps 'em out of court.

Scott's checklist certainly is a useful one. But as you point out, it's heavily skewed to the publicity function. That's the one part of PR the marketers understand -- and often the only one. We have to change that.

If I have a concern about the social media discussion of PR, it's that it's dominated by the marketing types, who often have no grounding in the field. We can educate them. If they'll listen.

Rich on 10/1/09, 8:00 PM said...


Glad you enjoyed the draft. Great observations, all around.

The burden seems to be on communicators and public relations to teach. We'll have to focus in on the ones who want to learn. If they do, they might even find measurable results.


Lenora Kaplan on 10/8/09, 3:31 PM said...


Your comment was just sent to me and I enjoyed reading the other posts.

Unfortunately my email quote was taken out of context, and what I was saying was that in most of work outside of Las Vegas, branding fit under the PR umbrella, whereas in Las Vegas it's mostly handled by ad agencies and other marketing firms. In addition, corporate communications functions go well beyond media outreach, but it has been my experience in Las Vegas that this isn't the case.

Amazing what taking a sentence out of context can do, and hey, on a side note, why do you call me "former?" I still work here!

Continue the great discussion.

Rich on 10/8/09, 4:34 PM said...

Hi Lenora,

Thank you for the clarification. Often times when journalists take comments out of context, they leave the rest of us in the world with a different impression, as noted.

I only had the article as a reference; and not your e-mail, naturally. It also identified you as former, which made sense to me only in that you seemed (via Linkedin) to have billed yourself as a marketing consultant.

I know you still live here. :)

All my best,


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