Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Public Relations and the World

By Alan Caruba

PR Week publishes monthly editions in addition to its other news services and the July issue is devoted to “The most powerful people in PR.” All industries have their major players, so there is nothing surprising that public relations would also have its heavy hitters, but there are some interesting insights to be gleaned from the list of the twenty-five chosen.

I have plied the magic arts and crafts of public relations since the 1970s when I gave up the notion of ever making a decent living as a journalist. Journalism offers tons of ego satisfaction, but the pay was bad back then and, by comparison with other professions, not much better today.

The major players are, not surprisingly, the ones in charge of projecting and protecting a corporate “image”, otherwise known as perception. Number one on the list is Katie Cotton, the VP of worldwide corporate communications for Apple. She is teamed with Steve Jobs its cofounder and CEO because, together, they are the dynamic due of PR for a company that is testimony to American innovation and enterprise. It’s a very good choice.

Corporate PR folk on the list include Leslie Dach, VP for Wal-Mart; Jon Iwata, VP for IBM; Ed Skyler, Executive VP for Citigroup; Sally Susman, Senior VP for Pfizer; Chris Hassell fpr Procter & Gamble; Gary Sheffer, VP for GE; Bill Margaritis, VP for FedEx; Rachel Whetstone, VP for Google, Julie Hamp, Senior VP for PepsiCo; and Teri Everett, SVP of News Corporation.

One thing should particularly be obvious and which continues throughout the list is the role of women at very high levels, even if men continue to dominate these positions. Of particular interest is the inclusion of Stephanie Cutter among the “most powerful” as an Assistant to the President for Special Projects. That is president as in President of the United States of America. While Robert Gibbs is in the spotlight as Obama’s spokesperson, Cutter played an essential role in his campaign and now in his administration.

Of the top twenty-five named, nine were women. That’s progress.

Among the other “power principals”, there are the expected CEOs of major agencies such as Richard Edelman of Edelman; Harris Diamond, CEO of Shandwick Worldwide; Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, Paul Taaffe, CEO of Hill & Knowlton; and Margery Kraus, CEO of APCO Worldwide. It is worth noting that these public relations firms operate on a global basis.

In a recent public television documentary on George P. Schultz who served in many top posts, including Secretary of State for Ronald Reagan, he noted that while people think cabinet members have a lot of power, their primary power is the ability to persuade people to support their policies. I cite this because the U.S. government employs a small army of “communications” people whose job is to marshal support. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. probably has more PR agencies per square mile than any other city in the nation.

Persuasion is the cash crop of public relations and perhaps the most interesting new trend is the creation of a whole new breed of PR folk whose expertise is in “social media” which is to say PR focused on using websites like Facebook, My Space, and Twitter to spread the message. There's a lot of outreach to influential bloggers as well. The emergence of the Internet has been one of the major changes affecting the profession.

Time was if a PR guy or gal “placed” a story with the wire services or a major newspaper such as The New York Times, Washington Post or Los Angeles Times, or a news magazine like Newsweek or Time that was sufficient to affect events. The loss of numerous daily newspapers and the shriveling of others have altered that dynamic. The news magazines are in their death throes.

A major contributor to this is the loss of credibility these news dynamos have brought upon themselves by pushing hoaxes such as global warming or in giving unexamined support to political agendas depending on who was in office. Investigative reporting is virtually a thing of the past as news organizations trim their staffs to the bare minimum.

The recent virtual black-out on news about the New Black Panthers and the failure of the Department of Justice to pursue voter tampering charges is yet another reason fewer and fewer television viewers turn to the network news shows for, well, news.

The rise of conservative talk radio speaks to the fact that a majority of Americans self-identify as politically conservative. The popularity of leading news and opinion websites that serve this audience is testimony to the power of public opinion.

Meanwhile the PR power players, in corporations, trade associations, special interest organizations, and in agencies, are hard at work seeking to influence public opinion.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to the quality of products and services, the actions taken by government, and the state of the economy that determines what the public thinks and does.

© Alan Caruba, 2010


LarryOldtimer said...

Alan, you are about the only journalist I have respect for, and I have great respect for you.

Having held relatively high positions of authority in both government and private industry (Senior Transportation Engineer for California Division of Highways and then Caltrans, Public Works Director for a city and Project Manager for a nation wide engineering company) I too have been deeply involved in PR work.

The best way for myself to do effective PR required adherence to a number of rules, the first one is being politely honest with all, and have personal and professional integrity. To be as "Caesar's wife", not only having personal and professional integrity, but to visibly demonstrate it. A second was to accomplish my job properly with visible and real success. A third was to acknowledge to myself that in public service, I was working for all of the people, not just official authorities, and the same thing in private industry (selling and performing engineering services), not working for just my boss or my clients. A forth rule was making sure that I did know what I was doing, and a fifth was dealing with problems as they arose promptly, and not make excuses.

All of these rules are of equal importance, I think. There are others, but I think these are the most important, and they worked well for me in my career as a professional civil engineer.

After the weather and perusal of news, your blog is the first thing I next read every day. Thank you again for your sterling work as a journalist.

Alan Caruba said...

Thank you, Larry. The feeling is mutual.

LarryOldtimer said...

Pardon me, the "Ceasar's wife" should have been "to not only demonstrate integrity, but to also have it".