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Should PR People be Part of the Story?

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
Back in the days when publicists plotted from behind the scenes: Uber-flack Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) with columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in “The Sweet Smell of Success.” 
 
My first exposure to public relations came not in an agency but on the client side. I wasn’t in an official PR role but was working as an executive assistant to designer Donna Karan right at the time when her company was exploding in size and visibility. Donna was besieged with press requests from all corners of the globe 24/7. As keepers of her calendar, it was our job to coordinate all interviews with her communications team, a task of insane complexity and relentless pace.
I learned a lot during that time, namely that I did not want to pursue a career in fashion PR. I’m no stranger to crazy, but fashion PR is crazy crazy. At the helm of this insanity was Donna’s head of corporate communications, Patti Cohen. Patti was — and still is, I’m sure — a whirlwind of frenetic energy with bright red hair and swags of black cashmere wrapped around her tiny frame regardless of the season. I’d sit in her office discussing calendar details while she juggled a phone on one shoulder, whipped through the master calendar (paper!) looking for 15-minute increments of Donna’s day to dole out to WWD and Vogue like a mama bird feeding her babies…all the while chomping on raw sunflower seeds she kept in a big glass bowl on her desk, right next to the towering arrangement of Casablanca lilies and a mason jar full of impeccably sharpened black pencils.

 

The wall behind Patti’s desk was covered floor-to-ceiling with Donna’s press hits. For all I know Patti started tacking them up there when Donna first started the company and never stopped — by the early 90s, when I was there, several layers of magazine articles and photos and newspaper clippings had already accumulated. It was a gorgeous pastiche, and I’d pore over it whenever Patti got wrapped up in a call and forgot I was sitting in front of her.  One day I asked Patti why she wasn’t in any of the photos to which she replied, “A good publicist is never in the picture.”

 

That stayed with me for years. Not only did I put it into practice, sidestepping photos with clients at public events whenever I could, I also passed it along to the many young publicists I went on the manage at other companies. Somewhere along the line, Patti’s advice morphed into this:

“A good publicist is never part of the story.”

Except now…we are. Or at least, we can be. Sarah Evans talked about this during a panel discussion I moderated recently on how Twitter has changed journalism and PR, and one of the points she made was how boundaries have blurred among PR,  journalist and blogger roles. There are journalists who blog, bloggers who do PR consulting, PR people who blog… It is in fact quite possible for PR people to participate in on-line conversations about their client through blogging, micro-blogging, status updates, photo sharing, and so on.

So all due respect to Patti, I believe it’s okay for the publicist to be part of the story, or at least the conversation. I do it, but only with disclosure. I’ll tell you if I’m blogging or tweeting about a client, and it’ll be an honest reflection of my feelings.   For example:

I started taking pictures recently at the client events I attend. I’ve got the Droid megapixels, why not? There was a time when those pictures would only have been shared internally at the agency but now, why not share publicly? Especially when apps like Whrrl make it so easy.  Here’s how I captured the action at a client’s launch event last week:

So what do you think? I’d love to hear from other communications professionals on how they’re handling the transition from being behind the conversation to participating in the conversation about their clients and brands.

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  1. December 8, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Hi Stephanie,

    First of all, this is a fascinating narrative that got me thinking. While I was reading the beginning of this post, I agreed with Patti that PR professionals shouldn’t be a part of the story, but by the end, I was agreeing with you – lines have blurred and it is more acceptable to participate in conversations about clients (with full disclosure, of course.)

    What’s funny to me is that I began studying PR because I wanted to work behind-the-scenes — providing strategy, counseling others, telling great stories about products and services, building relationships, and writing. PR seemed like a great fit because I always heard that a great PR professional should always be unseen. I’ve never been prone to standing in the spotlight, but halfway through my senior year of college, social media started to change that. People in PR began learning the importance of building “Brand You” to showcase that you understand marketing and PR by marketing and doing PR for yourself or your agency. It’s natural that these conversations often include information about our clients or campaigns.

    When it comes to projects I’m working on and deciding if I should join conversations about them, I consider two things that my mentors have shared with me: 1. Will my client and my company be okay if I associate myself with them in this manner, publicly? and 2. Am I minding the 90/10 rule of 90% information share and 10% self or client promotion?

    Thanks again for writing such an interesting piece. I’m looking forward to reading the comments!

    Best,
    Meg (@megmroberts)

    • ssmirnov
      December 8, 2009 at 4:22 pm

      thanks for the comment, Meg. It’s a big shift for PR people, at least PR people “of a certain age.” (witness Cassie’s comment above; her perspective is interesting as an aspiring communications pro still in school. She doesn’t really know a world where PR people didn’t have the means to be part of a public conversation about a client’s offering.) This exchange brings two things to mind — brands and agencies are the more than the sum of their parts, they’re about the people who work on/for them. People matter in social media, and if PR people are helping put on authentic face on their clients’ brands (and I do think it’s possible to do that), than why not. I follow a consistent rule of thumb when I talk about brands online — I don’t bash, and if I love something, I’ll let everyone know about it. Ad nauseum, in fact. Whether or not they’re my client (just ask Sharpie or Droid!.)

  2. Kevin Watterson
    December 8, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Look at the Tiger Woods situation. Absolutely they should be part of the story, because the were apparently complicit in building a false fabric that has now brought their boss to his knees (no pun intended).

    • ssmirnov
      December 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm

      You know, Kevin, the Tiger situation — or any crisis for that matter — should in theory show PR as a practice at its best. By which I mean, not at all. When PR is being “done” well, the whole point is that we’re not aware of it, right? There is furious activity behind the scenes, 24/7 strategizing and media outreach to contain or shape the story, whatever it is. The Zoo Zoo hamster folks seem to be doing this well right now in the face of an attack from a consumer group with sketchy research — Tiger’s team, on the other hand, failed so massively that everyone (even “civiilians” ) are saying, “What the hell were his PR people thinking?”

  3. December 8, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    This is so interesting. Coming in the PR world only knowing the digital side I just always assumed that publicists were part of the story. I could not think of the clients you work with without immediatly thinking of you.

    I think that may be part of the beauty of digital media. You are able to give brands a personal–she is my friend feel. Rather than only seeing ads and paid endorcements. I also think that this could make clients a bit nervous and more tedious when choosing the people who represent them. There are pro’s and con’s I suppose.

    Wow this comment is long. I will end it there.

  4. Tiffani Carter
    December 9, 2009 at 11:45 am

    hi Stephanie — This was such an awesome read. One that I think could be turned into a discussion group or seminar lead by you! I would attend front row! I’m somewhat old school in thinking: PR stays out of the picture, behind the scenes. BUT, I agree with @Meg — towards the end of your post I began to agree with you more. I first thing it’s so important for PR professionals to really be in tune with the blogosphere and even more in tune to our clients needs/wants/whims/preferences/dislikes. Taking that into consideration, I think that it’s best to find the perfect balance. Not to mention, in some cases, PR=Chief Spokesperson (ie. my sister as head of comm at NJ Transit). So using the blog tools there can be beneficial. When in doubt, stay behind the scenes!

    • ssmirnov
      December 9, 2009 at 9:13 pm

      Hey, TDC, thanks for the comment! You bring up a good point, there is a long history of PR people acting independently as the face and voice of their companies, like your sister. I wonder in those cases though how much the PR person’s individuality and personality must take a back seat to the personality of the company for which they’re the mouthpiece — different from the way PR people can interact in social media in and around conversations concering the brands they represent. I can geek out over Sam Adams beer or Sephora in my own voice differently than if I were working on the client side in a more formal “chief spokesperson” role. (Hmmmm. Or could I?)

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