The recent troubles of Teneo and its high-profile former CEO Declan Kelly have been given banner headlines in major business media. The reporters correctly dismiss the firm’s efforts to mischaracterize misbehavior as health issues. The broader damage to the PR industry is significant because journalists are given a free shot at repeating old stereotypes in the most important publications.
Take Philip Coggan’s ad hominem article in last week’s The Economist, titled The Perils of PR. Coggan has had his share of dealings with PR executives from his long tenure at the Financial Times and now at The Economist. Let’s list the whoppers in his piece:
- PR Expands to Fill the Budget Available—Once you start employing PR people it can be difficult to stop. You start with an in-house team, then hire an external agency, then a crisis management firm.
- Journalists Dealing with PR Executives Resembles Groundhog Day—Flacks send email pitches to journalists, then send a further email to make sure it has been read.
- Face-to-Face Encounters with PR People Serve Little Value—From the arrogant interventionist who pontificates and interrupts the journalist interaction with client to the silent note-taker who simply enjoys expense account meals.
- PR People Often Only Way to Get Information from a Company—There is a love-hate relationship between journalists and PR folks. This is an eco-system in which journalist and PR people are both parasites.
- PR Activity Has Zero Impact on the Client’s Public Profile—The main benefits of the system go to the participants, namely the PR people.
Coggan does acknowledge that some PR people do “supply useful facts, give an accurate steer on rumors and arrange interview when required. An expert PR executive can hone a message and identify the best way of communicating by selecting journalists and publications which will lend it a sympathetic ear.” But including those two lines seems a weak effort at fairness.
Here is the truth about the PR profession. We are increasingly able to influence company and brand actions because words alone are not enough. We are playing a key role in helping CEOs and leadership communicate with their employees at a time when employees are increasingly activist and willing to comment on company policy. We are responsible for correcting misperceptions that are built out in social media and become half-truths. We are having to go direct to end user of information because reporter ranks are so thinned. We find it difficult to persuade clients to interact with some parts of the media because CEOs perceive an anti-business bias in reporting.
The relationship between PR person and reporter will never be perfect but we should all aim to build trusted relationships with journalists. Those relationships must be built on providing quality information and being responsive. PR people who become the story are no service to the profession. Our success is that of the clients.
Richard Edelman is CEO.