Whose Side Are You On Anyway?

 And then there is the issue that great philosophers have debated through the ages.  After they wrestled with “who am I,” “the meaning of life,” and “the chicken or the egg”, they dared to tackle the most baffling question of all: 

What the hell is a PR person’s role anyway?   

  • Company Gal?  Some great thinkers said with great certainty that the media relations representative should be the organization’s unflagging advocate, the Company Gal or Guy!  
  • Reporter’s Pet?  Others argued with equal vim and vigor that media relations people should be the reporter’s advocate and assistant, the Reporters’ Pet! 

This great thinker’s answer?  The true role of the PR flack is…drum roll please…to marry the organization’s needs with reporters’ needs. 

I know, I know.  Balance is boooooring.   

But the problem with the pure Company Gal model is that no organization can effectively tell its story if it doesn’t understand and accommodate reporters’ legitimate needs. 

To do their job, reporters need prompt, brief, relevant, entertaining, interesting and truthful information.    If you don’t pay attention to these reporters’ needs, the organization’s story will go untold, undertold or incorrectly told.  So, the flack does often need to fight for reporters’ requests within the organization, and that is why employers often wonder whose side we are on. 

The problem with the pure Reporter’s Pet model is that organizations can’t effectively tell their story if their legitimate organizational needs aren’t met.    If accommodating reporters’ need for speed and spice results in responses that are false, incomplete, unsupportable, unethical, inane or illegal, the organization can encounter problems a helluva lot more damaging than a bad news story.  So, sometimes the flack does need to slow things down, limit access, build internal consensus and triple check before they respond, and that’s why reporters love to hate us. 

Media relations people have to strike a balance between pissing off people who keep their families fed and pissing off people who ultimately win most arguments because they buy ink by the barrel.  In the process, the good ones end up making both sides merely frustrated rather than furious.   

So, if I have to choose between a PR guy who is loved in his employers’ boardroom versus one who is loved in newsrooms, I don’t want either.  Belovedness is a red flag in the media relations world.  To do their job right, media relations people need to get love from their mommies, not reporters or employers.  – Loveland

5 thoughts on “Whose Side Are You On Anyway?

  1. walt parker says:

    There’s a fabulous profile of New York PR maestro Howard Rubenstein in last week’s New Yorker by the amazing Ken Auletta. After noting Rubenstein’s well-documented advocacy for Steinbrenner, Giuliani, Spitzer and everyone in between, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, he posed teh question to Howard, nearing 80: Where are YOU? What do YOU believe in? I loved his answer (don’t have the mag for exact quote; sorry) but something like this:
    “I believe in New York. I believe in my BUSINESS.”
    Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. Bottom line is that he helps people who hate each other keep our great New York from turning into Greater Belgrade. There’s something to be said for that. Anyway, read the piece. Tons of great anecdotes. Auletta’s the best.

  2. Jon Austin says:

    I look at it as common interests. I have things in common with most reporters covering my company or an issue I’m working: I’m interested in making sure the things said about my side are – at least – fair and accurate and that the reporter have as complete an understanding of my client’s views as possible. We share an interest – usually – in having a low-stress, professional relationship. On any given story, we may have the same or similar interests in seeing it published.

    At the same time, though, I try to never forget that I’m an advocate. I have a worldview that sees things a certain way and – to the extent I can do so ethically and honestly – my goal is to convince a reporter and ultimately you that my view is the right way to look at the world. I want to set the narrative, frame the questions under consideration, pick the experts, have the last word and final edit.

    Of course, I don’t get all that because reporters and their organizations don’t cede those responsibilities often and because there are a dozen people like me on any issue, each one doing the same thing and playing for the same pot. I also know that in order to win over the long run, I have to play the game fairly, honestly, professionally and credibly. I think too many PR people treat an interaction with the media as a one-time game where the object is to get the maximum possible out of that single interaction. Instead, I would submit the best way for both sides to operate is under the principle that, “No story is more important than the relationship.”

    And that’s the tricky part, in my opinion. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a short term objective for the greater good and – sometimes – you have to do so against the direction of your superiors. Insubordination? Maybe. Chickenshit cowardice? Maybe. Realpolitik PR? Maybe. There are no black and white answers here, folks.

    Let’s go to the tape for a couple of rounds of “You make the call!”

    Round 1: The marketing department arrives breathlessly at your doorstep with the latest and greatest: three new color choices for next year’s models – peach, green tea and sandalwood. And, the marketing maven confides, we really need to push this news because unfortunately this is the big innovation for this year.

    “OK,” you say, “but boy this will be really tough to sell. I mean I clearly see how cool these color swatches are – and yes, they’re certainly different than the salmon, mint and bone color choices they’re replacing – but I’m not sure the media’s going to get how big this is. Just warning you not to get your hopes up.”

    In reality, anyone who’s ever pitched anything to the media knows that this limp noodle couldn’t be pitched off a bridge in a hurricane. No way.

    You make the call; should the PR person:

    1) Wade in and do his or her best because that’s the hill we’ve been assigned to take today.
    2) Refuse it because it’s personally and corporately harmful to use an iota of your credibility to sell such a lame offering.
    3) Take the assignment and call up your target reporters and say, “I’m not going to embarrass you and me by pitching you the three new color choices, but I’m going to send you the release and you do with it what you will; how about those Knicks?”

    Round 2: The beat reporter covering your industry has learned from two sources that your company is going to file Chapter 11 on Sunday night. Your CEO says, “Deny it categorically. If the news gets out before we file, we’ll lose our prepackage financing commitments. That story must not run no matter what it takes.”

    You make the call; should you:

    1) Tell the reporter the story is wrong, threaten to sue, call the editor, do as ordered and use every possible tactic to stop the story.
    2) Refuse to do so because the reporter’s information is correct and you won’t be part of any effort to mislead him.
    3) Use “We don’t comment on rumors and speculation…” and work like hell off the record to shape the story so it’s as soft as possible.

    OK, let’s see how you did.

    If you chose “A” for either answer, God help you and good luck on your next career because you’re going to burn up your credibility in a flash. And, ultimately, that’s all you’ve got in this business. “I was just following orders….” doesn’t really excuse you.

    If you chose “B” for either answer, I admire the purity of your vision and hope you work for an organization that feels the same way. Few do, in my experience, including many so-called “enlightened” companies, media companies, non-profits, governments and religious institutions. You might get away with it a couple of times, but that’s about it.

    That leaves “C” which in both cases is an imperfect solution that satisfies no one. And yet it often represents the best real-world choice available to us if we want to stay in the game for the next round when it might really matter more than color schemes or when we can use our credibility on a story where it can actually impacts the outcome.

  3. jl says:

    Good examples. Company Guy does 1, Reporter’s Pet does 2, Rowdy Flack does 3, and leaves both reporter and boss (if she ever finds out about it) grumbling. But mom still loves you.

    Here’s another “you make the call:” What do you do if your boss tells you to state with great certainty that there is a secret plan to create a whole new nation (Iranq) out of thin air, despite an utter lack of subsantiation? http://www.startribune.com/blogs/bigquestion/

  4. Eileen says:

    I once heard that PR people were just paid liars.

    Balance may be boring, but it separates the pros from the rest of the crowd. It also makes my job much more challenging.

  5. On Austin’s choices and jl’s challenge — there’s gotta be a choice “D.”
    Argue with your boss. Push back internally so you’re not peddling crap. Do what a journalist would do — push on the “facts” your organization has and see if they’re solid. Reporters are going to shake your information to see if it holds together, so you better be doing it first.
    Rep. Bachmann’s staff would have served her well to say “Hey, are these talking points about Iran & Iraq solid, is there really such a plan, what are the sources?” rather than just figuring out how to get her quoted.

    And Eileen, who was that who said PR people were paid liars?
    OK, it was me when I was a journalism prof at Mankato State University. That’s how I saw some PR people when I was a journalist. Years later, I became a PR person, and Eileen, a student of mine, restrained herself from sending me a crow and a salt shaker.

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