Business Roundtable Statement–Finally Getting Public Relations

Much was made this week when the Business Roundtable issued its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.

The essence of the statement is that businesses should have a larger purpose than only maximizing value for shareholders, aka investors.

A close look at this statement shows a bullet list that identifies other groups of people to whom businesses should show a commitment–customers, employees, suppliers, and communities.

What is compelling about this is how this “revelation” is actually quite old, and how this management innovation is actually fundamental public relations.

Those “groups of people” I mentioned above are more commonly called publics in the vernacular of public relations professionals. In a PR management class I teach I devote a week to each of these and other publics. The heart of public relations is to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with ALL publics, understanding that sometimes two or more publics with whom an organization has relationship may have competing goals. As they say in interpersonal relationships, it’s complicated.

What may be best for investors is sometimes antithetical to the interests of customers. A good action on behalf of employees may alienate the community. And so on. This is why PR is more than tactics, more than communication–it is a management function. And it has been considered such by many for a long time. Consider:

  • Stakeholder Theory, managing with consideration of all who have a stake in the success of or could be affected by an organization, is traced back as far as 1984;
  • The PR Council, an organization of public relations agencies, developed several years ago a guide called “Ethics as Culture” that stresses making ethics and consideration of all stakeholders a fundamental aspect of counseling clients and not mere compliance with rules;
  • The Arthur W. Page Society, an organization of top CCOs (Chief Communication Officers) representing the in-house function of PR and communications, issued a thought leadership effort called “The New CCO” that makes stakeholder consideration paramount in the role.

I am delighted that the Business Roundtable, representing the top business leaders in the country, has articulated an endorsement of the basic tenet of public relations. However, I’m upset yet again that they think this is their idea and don’t recognize what they advocate as fundamental public relations.

I’m also annoyed that while there has been much media coverage of this announcement (here’s a partial list in a Google News search), little if any of it equates this statement to public relations. Several media even express negative opinion in their coverage: The LA Times calls it “propaganda,” and CNN calls it “symbolic”.

So, the Business Roundtable has shown they finally get public relations. But they, and the media who covered their statement, don’t get that what they are talking about is public relations.

One can only hope that the statement leads to consistent, legitimate efforts to treat all publics with mutual respect and the realization that doing so is both ethical and sound strategy. And then, if it’s not asking too much, business leaders, the media and the public at large will realize that this management practice is what enlightened  PR pros have been encouraging all along.

Who Should Be Your Spokesperson?

imagesJust recently, a client of mine was in the news. The story was not something we had pitched, it was just some journalistic enterprise stemming from a public meeting.

It just so happened that the CEO and COO were both across the country at a conference. So the VP of Finance took the call from a reporter and answered the questions. This was appropriate, given that the story was financial in nature. The reporter needed to verify and clarify some numbers and then ask for a quote. The resulting article was clear and positive and the finance expert had gained some media exposure.

I bring this up because people often wonder who their client or organization’s spokesperson should be. Some assume it should always be the CEO. Others think that’s the role of the PR person. Often in times of crisis it is a lawyer stepping up to the microphone (not always a good idea because of the implications of a lawyer speaking looking defensive as opposed to transparent).

The reality is, the best spokesperson depends on the subject matter and context.

When I did media training several times over the years for the client I mentioned, I always did it for not just the CEO but everyone on the management team, including finance, human resources, and other specific business area management leads. This is because everyone should be ready to give a clear interview that is both helpful to journalists and consistent with company objectives.

That is the purpose of media training–to make sure everyone who might do an interview is not mystified, afraid of, or antagonistic toward the media. They should know how to speak for print, radio, or TV–live or recorded–in a way that provides accurate and useful information that sounds genuine and not generic jargon.

In previous PR jobs where media relations was the focus, I often connected reporters to people other than myself for interviews. The idea was to shine a light on more people in an organization to show its depth and diversity, but also to have more insightful comments closer to the subject at hand. Reporters were always appreciative of the access to sources most suited for the story.

Here are some simple considerations for setting up a spokesperson on a given story:

  • authority/accountability–who has the power or made or will make a decision relative to the story? This could be the CEO, but it could be another member of management. Think in terms of who the public would want to hear from to justify themselves for the actions to be reported in the story. (This also is something to think about if debating whether someone from a PR agency or someone in-house should be the spokesperson for a story);
  • knowledge–who can really answer a reporter’s questions in detail in a way that can enlighten and educate an audience? This may be a scientist, a teacher, an accountant, an engineer, a safety officer or anyone who deals with the subject of a reporter’s story daily as the focus of their job;
  • accessibility–who is available right now or very soon? Reporters work on deadlines. Sometime there is a long lead time to set something up, but often the story is for tonight’s broadcast or going up online for the next app or email update. In this case, the PR professional may be the one to speak for the sake of efficiency.



Why the Return of Paid Content Will Be Good for PR

For years I have been watching the economic decline of journalism. The cycle has gone like this:

  • new media emerge in droves because of the digital and social media opportunities;
  • in a rush to keep up with digital and social expansion and competition, legacy print media put their content online for free;
  • subscribers, preferring free to paid, and being overwhelmed with choices, drop subscriptions and use social platforms, RSS feeds, news aggregators and so on to access news;
  • the competition intensifies and to stay economically viable (i.e. more clicks) journalism quality suffers and goes solid reporting of important news is edged by click-bait, market-driven, entertainment value;
  • good journalists accept buy-outs and publishers seek “cheaper content” by aggregating, leveraging content from broader sources (witness MLive consolidating newsrooms and its universal desk so the content is very similar in Muskegon, Detroit, Grand Rapids, or how similar Detroit Free Press and USA Today look ) and gaining free content from bloggers, user-generated content and other “innovations” (witness the GVSU student who was paid in swag for her popular Buzzfeed quizzes);
  • smaller newsrooms put out less serious news, people keep getting it for free, favoring a stream of articles from multiple sources vs a deep read of select single sources;
  • with lower subscription and readership numbers, advertising dollars continue to decline, offering even less revenue to put into the “product” of must-read news.

There have been some alternative models. The New York Times offers 5 free reads per month and then a given IP address will have to subscribe. Others, like the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, offer some article free but premium articles are dangled out there with a notice that they are for subscribers only.

Other publications have emerged in a non-profit or donation model. In Michigan, many quality journalists from legacy media have moved to such publications such as the Bridge (“If you care about Michigan, please support our work”) or more recently Michigan Advance (heads up–I’ve invited editor Susan Demas to speak at GVSU and my colleagues are putting together an event for March 29 that will include a panel of journalism, advertising, public relations, and communications faculty including myself).

There is also a trend of nonprofits, businesses, and government offices becoming their own media outlet in the form of a news bureau or online newsroom that goes direct to public. A former student of mine who works for a state-wide association just asked me about this. I have written about this pointing to some examples on my blog previously–here’s a collection of prior posts on the subject.

But recently I noticed more media, from individual outlets to group conglomerates, drawing a line in the media economics sand and announcing a return to paywalls and subscriptions for their content. The latest example of this is a decision by Conde Nast for its fleet of publications. Some see the move as a bad one, but it is a trend to watch nonetheless.

Here’s why this is good for advertising and public relations.

  1. Survival of media. This will reverse the downward cycle I posed above. I heard a billionaire say once that if something is free, it has no perceived value. If people have to pay, publishers will have to put out quality reporting–meat, not candy. There is a hunger among the intelligent public for a less frantic media landscape, for news that is credible and quality. This will help good media–whether old or new–to survive.
  2. Communication environment. We should want good journalism to survive, first as citizens, and secondly as advertising and public relations professionals. Programmatic and targeted advertising made some economic sense, but it can lack qualitative intuition, creativity, and ethics. A recent study shows that most people don’t want tailored or targeted ads. Audiences who pay for content are more attentive to both paid and earned media (or ads and editorial content). And our ads and article pitches will exist next to good and not questionable content, which other studies shows matters to readers.
  3. Dedicated and aggregated audience. Digital media has been about both reach (quantity) and targeting small audiences of like minds and relevant interests. But returning to paywalls changes the equation. It may result in lower reach as not all current readers will subscribe. But those who do subscribe will be in one place, read each issue and multiple articles, have a natural interest in content and likely a net disposable income enabling them to respond to ads.

There are some considerations to work out as journalism returns to paywalls. One is whether subscribers–and maybe only subscribers–will be allowed to share content. Another is whether publishers will offer headlines and article summaries, or a handful of free articles each issue as a loss leader to draw subscribers. We’ll see. We are in what economist Joseph Schumpeter would call a “gale of creative destruction” in the media industry. What looks dire could emerge as a very good move forward.

I for one am eager to see what good things paywalls do for journalism, content, citizens and the ad and PR industry.

MLK and the Character of Our Content

Like many Americans, I have long admired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. There are many reasons to admire the man. One reason I admire him most is for his speeches, beautifully crafted and delivered with compelling cadence and style. And of all his speeches, one line from his “I have a dream” speech comes back to me most frequently: his dream that one day “we judge each other not by the color of our our skin but by the content of our character.”

I often think that as professional communicators, we would do well to adapt and amend that and measure ourselves not by attention and sales metrics but by the character of our content.

Journalists should eschew click bait, sensationalism, rushing to judgment to be first rather than right, partisan and prejudicial in what is not covered, what is covered, and how it’s covered.

Advertisers should reconsider pandering to the perceived social cause of the moment to piggyback on public sentiment, and instead work to reflect authentic sentiment of brands and organizations they represent. They should hold back on inserting questionable language in a Super Bowl ad with the intent of getting it withdrawn so they can get more attention in a social campaign. They should value not edgy copy that polarizes their “market” but consider the effect of content on all stakeholders, whether customers or not.

Public relations “practitioners” should aspire to be public relations professionals and adopt a model of practice that stresses mutual relationships, not mere attention. They  should work not to craft an image, but to earn a reputation. They should seek not to distribute volumes of commodified content, but selective and appropriate messaging that serves a legitimate, specific and ethical organizational objective.

Now, some might say this is all naive. They would point out that there are significant competitive pressures, client demands, the boss’ expectations. Yes, but professionals can respond with character and resolve, can counsel not just fulfill, speak truth to power, influence organizational cultures and not be influenced by them.

Even at that, I’m sure some will call me an idealist. Yes, I have professional ideals. That’s another way of saying I have a dream.



Marketing: A Public Relations Discipline

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It caught me off guard for 2.3 seconds. I was just starting a radio interview about something public relations related, I don’t remember what any more. But I do remember the host getting us started by asking me: “First, what’s the difference between PR and marketing?”

I had not expected the question. But I should have. Because people get confused. Some use the terms interchangeably. Even some professional trade publications assert–incorrectly in my view– that “PR is a marketing discipline.” Others talk about work they do as “marketing and public relations” in a way that implies PR is only media relations, another minimizing error.

So what IS the difference? In the radio interview I stated that marketing is about all the activities that are required to bring a product or service to market, whereas public relations is much more broad in terms of developing and maintaining mutual relationships with many publics, not just customers.

I discuss this in my classes. As simplistic graphic above shows, marketing runs deeper in terms of bringing products and services to market, to reach consumers, with the objective of sales. Marketers engage in product development, packaging design, consumer behavior research, channels of distribution, economic analysis, pricing strategy and other aspects of what have been called the 4 Ps.

Public relations overlaps with marketing in terms of one public–consumers–and one of the 4 Ps–promotion. The tactics of both professions overlap in what is often called marketing communications, or MARCOMS.

But professions are not defined by their tactics. A mechanic, carpenter, electrician, and plumber may all use the same tools at one time or another. But they have different objectives.

So, PR has a limited contribution to marketing in terms of promotion. But in terms of objectives and publics it is considerably broader. As the graphic above shows, public relations is concerned with relationships, not only sales. Positive, honest, ethical, mutual relationships lead to good things with many publics, including sales to consumers, but also employee retention, investor confidence, community support, and more.

A fellow public relations professor who works in California said recently on social media that “marketing should report to public relations.” Exactly, for the reasons indicated above. It is broader and inclusive of marketing in terms of publics of interest and overall objectives. Another way of saying that is that marketing is a public relations discipline.

There are lots of opinions on this issue. This is just my take, albeit shared by many PR professionals and faculty with whom I speak regularly. But overall, the two professions need to have a mutual respect for each other, not demonizing or minimizing what the other does. I teach my PR students the basics of business and marketing (as well as addressing nonprofit management and the political landscape), and I am always pleased when marketing programs explain PR as something more than a product news release.