Beware the PR Prophets

May 20, 2009 · 21 comments

gatekeepersEdward Boches declared in a comment here last week that the “future of PR has more to do with eliminating the barriers between information and audience, rather than being the gatekeeper between them.”

I agree with Edward, however I’d caution us against becoming barrier-less extremists. That’s not what Edward is suggesting, but I have seen many social media experts say that companies and their executives must open themselves up completely for the world to engage with them if they hope to be successful in a digital world.

We’ll need to move toward eliminating the barriers between brands and consumers, but we’ll still need to keep a bit of the guardian mentality in place. Why? Because while our jobs are shifting to require that we provide more access to information and executives, our jobs still entail keeping our brands’ best interests in mind.

Yes, it’s in your brand’s best interest to engage directly with consumers, listen to their feedback and begin building relationships with them. It’s not always in your brand’s best interest to grant full access to executives in a way that bypasses you, especially in working with journalists. They  don’t have your brand’s best interests in mind, as well they shouldn’t. They have a job to do and it doesn’t include being your ambassadors.

That means it will remain important to feel out reporters, understand the story they’re trying to tell and work quickly to provide spokespeople with background information for the interview, like potential questions based on your conversations with the reporter, the media outlet’s target audience, the reporter’s previous coverage on the topic, and so on. Doing this increases the reporter’s chances for a better interview than catching an executive off guard would provide, as well as allowing you to better prepare for potentially negative interviews and stories.

I’m not advocating a gatekeeper mentality. Anyone who reads this blog regularly should know I believe strongly in making information more accessible, more engaging and more easily shareable. But, in the  case of media relations, I do think it’s important to remember that our primary responsibility isn’t to journalists. It’s to the brands we’ve been entrusted to help steward. That requires knocking down the barriers to information, as well as an appropriate level of guardianship.

There are many great PR prophets out there sharing solid visions for the changing role of PR. However, I’d recommend caution to the ones suggesting that PR should adopt a policy that leaves the gates wide open and completely unattended.

What do you think? Should PR pros hand over the reins completely, share them with those along for the ride or continue serving as gatekeepers? Why?

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 edwardboches May 20, 2009 at 8:19 am

David,
Thoughtful as always. I believe we will always need the skill and counsel of great PR (and PR/SM) professionals. But as the discipline changes, part of the role of the PR pro is to connect the brand with its consumers more directly. That may not always be about unrestricted access, it may be about who at the brand blogs, the content it provides, the ways it allows for feedback and dialog, and, in some cases, the way it simply bypasses all the gatekeepers and takes a message, a response, a claim, a defense or even a question directly to its consumers via Twitter or Youtube. We are all good at assessing what we see going on right now. Predicting what will happen a year from now is harder, but my instinct tells me we will eliminate barriers even more, brands will look to find better ways to connect directly, the consumers voice in a brand will become even more prevalent.

Edward Boches

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2 jeffgreenler May 20, 2009 at 8:36 am

I would also add that there is great risk in granting the entire company access to customers. Yes, social marketing needs to loosen some of the traditional restraints of corporate controlled, ‘push’ communications, but it is also in the brand’s best interest to assure that brand tone and narrative remain consistent and true. It is difficult to do that if everyone in the company feels that SM grants them permission to blog indiscriminately without proper guidelines and some rules of engagement.

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3 David May 20, 2009 at 5:54 pm

I agree with you, as noted in the post. As I was thinking about how much the industry will change moving forward to eliminate those barriers, though, it reminded me of some of the claims I’ve seen from others who claim PR people should get completely out of the way. That’s what prompted this post.

Thanks for sharing your insights, as always!

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4 scott bauman May 20, 2009 at 8:55 am

David,

I do agree with you, BUT we’re not even close to the point where gates are swinging freely. In most cases, we still battle old school command and control mentality. In this case, the executive looks bad because he/she sounds/acts disconnected from the mainstream (with the vanguard being those aggressive young execs who were seemingly born with social media sensibility). My counsel would always be to achieve relevance for today and then establish how and when to open and close the doors (to the degree you can).

Scott

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5 Lauren Fernandez May 20, 2009 at 9:31 am

Great post, David. You are right on target with the fact that social media ‘experts’ say a company has to open themselves completely.

I’m a big advocate of transparency, and that doesn’t mean you have to open everything up for someone to see. As brand advocates, we should be passionate enough about the brand to want to protect it’s best interest and take a media relations approach to SM.

I love what you said here:

“But, in the case of media relations, I do think it’s important to remember that our primary responsibility isn’t to journalists. It’s to the brands we’ve been entrusted to help steward.”

So many PR professionals think they HAVE to give every single detail to a journalist to hook them for a story – no matter what it is. You can be open and give more information without having to blow it completely wide open.

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6 Todd May 20, 2009 at 9:48 am

Post almost sounds as if it was written by a tyrannosaurus rex who’s Monday morning quarterbacking the meteor strike…

“If it hadn’t had hit the earth, we’d still be around doin’ dinosaur stuff.”

The very act of corporate executives hiding from journalists, their customers and the public in general, behind paid PR, is in itself very telling.

Plus, when it really counted ( Domino’s pizza YouTube disaster ) the executive made a person plea to the public – why wasn’t a PR person picked to respond?

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7 David May 20, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Todd, I’d recommend that you re-read the post. I believe based on others’ comments here that I was clearly not advocating for gatekeeper-rampant, one-way communications pushed out to the masses. Or hiding executives from journalists. If you think it’s a great idea that 60 minutes call your CEO directly with no forewarning, then we’ll have to disagree.

The reason a Domino’s executive made the plea is that it should have been made by an executive. I’d have recommended the same thing. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Domino’s internal PR people recommended the same thing. People would rather hear from the executive than the PR person in a situation like that. BUT, you’re crazy if you think that wasn’t a strategic decision or that the message wasn’t at least discussed ahead of time.

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8 anon May 20, 2009 at 9:50 am

I came here because of the title of the post, but really only the second to last paragraph was specifically about “Beware the PR Prophets”; the rest was all about refuting a specific suggestion from a specific ‘prophet’. I’d love to see a full post befitting the title, I think it’s a fascinating topic that deserves more attention. :)

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9 David May 20, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Thanks for stopping by. The second to last paragraph specifically used the word prophet, but the entire post was about being cautious about a specific suggestion by some of the prophets.

To clarify, Edward was NOT the prophet I was refuting. I agree with his statement. His comment reminded me that some others are suggesting a gate-wide-open mentality, which I disagree with. So I wanted to bring that up.

I’ll give a more general post on the topic some thought, but, to be honest, the message would be the same.

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10 Arik Hanson May 20, 2009 at 9:57 am

All the more reason why PR pros need to understand the social media space. I mean *really* understand it. The basic PR skills still apply here. Knowing when to offer up your CEO for a key interview (whether it be on CNBC or a high-profile blog) and working directly with journalists as you’ve suggested David, to find out what they’re writing about and how you can help (and best represent the brand).

@arikhanson

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11 Dan Keeney May 20, 2009 at 10:14 am

Todd had a great start to his comment. If this is about gatekeeping, the real question becomes, how can a PR counselor guide communications when everyone has broadcast (or narrowcast) capabilities all the time? If your CEO can come into contact with a citizen journalist in the parking lot, at the ballgame or in line at the post office, how can you provide counsel? I think there is a bit of old school command and control thinking represented here that may have value, but is getting less and less viable as technologies that connect people become more ubiquitous. Great conversation!

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12 Heather Whaling May 20, 2009 at 10:21 am

At the end of the day, we have to remember who we’re ultimately responsible to — our clients. I’m always amazed when social media “experts” claim that we need to be acting of behalf of the consumers and advocating for their best interest. While there are some consumer-advocacy tasks that do fit in the scope of our role, that’s generally not our primary responsibility. In some cases, throwing the doors wide open may work. However, in many more cases, that’s just not smart business. It doesn’t mean we’re trying to play dirty or to hide the truth — it just means we’re making a calculated business decision. We live in a world of overexposure and hype. Just because people think they want to know everything about anything doesn’t mean that’s the right business decision. And, as communicators, our job is to incorporate PR, marketing, social media, etc in ways that support a company’s overall business goals and objectives.

Heather (@prtini)

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13 Leslie Hawk May 20, 2009 at 10:41 am

I totally agree with your statement that allowing consumers access to your brand is a good thing but that it must be done withine limits. I don’t think a PR professional’s role should be to be a gate keeper but to do their job effectively they must act as a filter or a conduit to the information being sought as well as given out. We all know that CEOs sometimes want to say something in a certain way that might not be received well… and as you state in your post, the consumer or reporter wants information and may not have the brand’s best interest in mind. That is the job of the PR Professional – to ensure that both sides are mutually getting their needs and goals met.

I think PR’s role is changing and that we must be flexible in order to continue to be a viable source for our clients. It takes skill, savvy and above all flexibility.

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14 Stuart Foster May 20, 2009 at 10:44 am

Just use common sense to a certain extent. If it isn’t in your best interest to let the flood gates open and expose the brand you are stewarding to a deluge of damaging questions. Just don’t.

However, I do think you have to move forward with that being the ultimate goal for the brand. Use baby steps…and eventually everyone will win.

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15 Stuart Foster May 20, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Thought up a great analogy for this: You should stretch a net across a river. That’s the kind of system you want to use.

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16 David May 20, 2009 at 6:09 pm

excellent analogy. that illustrates well the way I think will be best moving forward.

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17 Helena Makhotlova May 20, 2009 at 10:44 am

Well, this is in fact un-ever-ending discussion about what is the role of PR in an organisation. I fulheartedly agree with the comment above, but I think we both know that it’s NOT what PR is, in theory.

PR academics want us to believe that main function of PR in an organisation, is serving societal interests, and making management to change so that these interests can be, in fact, served. Yea, I was very surprised myself, when I learned it.

PR is probably one of the most difficult to define professions out there. I don’t think there are any straightforward answers to your question, David. It really depends on the perspective, and probably the case too.

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18 Keith Trivitt May 20, 2009 at 11:08 am

David, again (like a lot of times), I certainly agree with most of your points in this post. Coming from more of a media relations background that was in sports (you want to talk about NOT fully disclosing all information, go work in a sports PR environment), I fully understand the need to be open and transparent with journalists in order to get the best possible angle and message about your brand/client/coaches, etc. out there, without giving up too much information that may jeopardize a pending deal or some other confidential matter.

The one thing I would also tell the coaches and teams that I represented is that yes, you do need to be as upfront and as honest as you can with a journalist. But that doesn’t mean you have to tell them everything you’ve ever learned, or everything that is currently going on with your team.

The same principles, I believe, apply for more corporate/agency PR settings. Give your users/consumers and journalists access, but don’t feel inclined to always give them every last bit of information that you have. Because you are definitely right, journalists don’t have your brand’s best interests in mind, and if you give them all the dirt, they are going to print it. As always, use a little bit of common sense. It works wonders.

@KeithTrivitt

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19 Rachel Kay May 20, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Thanks for this post David – excellent and important points. Many practitioners of the new age of online marketing and social media are eager to denounce the tenets of traditional PR, and quick to label us practitioners as old school. Some often liberally tack the title of “PR” onto their own resumes even though they’ve never done true PR in their lives.

Yes – your post hit a nerve in me. Fortunately we have a lot of great new tools to work with to help our clients and companies get their messages out. It’s true we have to move faster than ever before to keep up with the speed of online conversation. The tones of the messages have changed as well, as we speak not only to journalists but to consumers as well. Thanks to the viral nature of the Internet, this means it’s more important than ever before to make sure the message is accurate and appropriate. That’s what my and my staff’s job is and hopefully the reporters we work hard to please will recognize that. We’ve never considered ourselves gatekeepers; rather we shape, refine and disseminate the most pertinent information to make it easier for anyone to deliver factual news to their readers or viewers. Recommending that a company throw caution to the wind without key messages or control creates a very dangerous opportunity for misinformation to be propelled across the Web.

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20 Jason Sprenger May 20, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Thanks, David!

I think you – and Heather and others commenting here – hit it on the head when we say that we have to do what we feel is in the best interests of our business, or our client. Being completely open and transparent may only be a recommended strategy for a fraction of companies – and rarely, if ever, for private companies. But ultimately it depends on one’s unique situation what they should do from a SM perspective.

It bears repeating again – social media is simply a tool in the PR person’s arsenal. It’s a means to an end. It’s not the end-all, be-all strategy. In the best cases, social media is part of a larger, integrated marketing strategy to advance a company and a brand. I think we find that the approach we take with social media is defined as much or more by the other components of the bigger picture as anything else.

@JasonSprenger

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21 RockstarJen May 20, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Yes, you can still manage information while being transparent. Public companies, for one, would be in a real world of hurt, in many ways, if they told everything.

And what about competitive info, or negotiations behind the scenes? Some of this information maybe be “interesting” or “fun” for consumers and media to learn, but it also means the brand in question won’t be around long.

Public relations has always been about common sense. Anyone who is on either polar points of gatekeeper vs. foodgate isn’t using it.

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