Sunday, January 30, 2011

Media dust

What a month for my former employer - the Daily News.

And what an interesting look at how the quest for profit can hurt the assets that truly will bring you a return.

First, former managing editor Doug Dowie (and one-time public relations force in LA) lost an appeal in a criminal case for defrauding taxpayers and is set to begin a 3.5-year prison sentence in February.

A few weeks later, Dean Singleton stepped down as CEO of MediaNews Group, the parent company of the Daily News and a host of other papers in California and across the country. Singleton was a founder of the fourth largest newspaper holding company in the U.S.

Both events could draw some observations about changes in the world where we PR types maneuver, and possibly how leaders can lose sight of the things that make companies strong.

First, Doug. He was my boss at the Daily News. Later, he was someone I encountered in PR circles. Actually, we usually found ourselves on opposite sides in the tightly-wound world of public affairs and Los Angeles government.

Dowie was among the few dozen of us who made a transition from newspapers to public relations in Southern California. Many of us did so because of limited newspaper career options (see below) and because PR paid better. OK, there. I said it.

The connections and contacts we nurtured as journalists were suddenly valuable to an agency. This continues today, especially because of the erosion of traditional newspapers and the growth of the public relations profession. It's a point worth remembering: Value. Human value.

Sadly, as well documented in his trial, Dowie stepped way out of bounds in running the Los Angeles office of a well known PR firm. His critics will quickly assume that as the head of the Los Angeles office of a major PR firm, Dowie was pressured to show profits. That pressure, they assume, led him down a dangerous and costly path. The PR firm has never fully recovered its LA standing.

And there was greater damage. In Dowie's wake was a disaster for many PR agencies in Los Angeles. The city immediately cut off all PR contracts - a harsh move considering that scandals have occurred with other consultants (engineers, etc.), but the city never imposed a total blackout on those industries. But, here we were again, defending what we do for a living.

I had the joyous task, as president of the Public Relations Society of America's Los Angeles chapter, of trying to help PR recover its standing - both with the city and with our overall image in a major metropolitan area. Then and now, PR remains an easy target. ("Why can't city staff handle these duties?" "Why does government need PR?"). Of course, you can't remind the elected officials who are taking shots at you that they have relied on the same PR and public affairs leaders to boost their political capitol, win critical initiatives, negotiate consensus, and communicate with their constituencies. You can't convince journalists why public agencies, and private corporations, need strategists to protect reputations or get information published through the very medium that delights in taking shots.

Today, the impact of Dowie's very public case on local PR and public affairs seems to have faded. Agencies rightfully have earned government contracts to manage the serious business of communicating important initiatives and projects, securing consensus, and more. Questions about why "outside" assistance is needed versus what can be accomplished by in-house staff are less frequent. (Asking this is the same as saying in-house city engineers with no background in building a steel bridge are the better choice over an outside engineering firm that has designed dozens of bridges. They both have basic engineering skills, but wouldn't you rather look for the specialist, the one with experience in the project you're about to do?)

Perhaps the lessons for PR managers in the Dowie case is to place the appropriate value on your work and to go after the accounts that will bring you an appropriate return. Governments are not cash cows, certainly not today. But if your work is valuable, and your team is valuable, then make sure everyone knows that price ahead of time.

Singleton also was not a revered subject within his industry, at least not by the working journalists who saw this CEO more concerned with profits than quality journalism. This was his mantra long before anyone could envision the current financial demise of newspapers. Journalists dreaded the news that their paper was being acquired by Singleton because cuts were coming. Journalists want an owner whose priority is producing good journalism. It's a great motivator. It's why journalists will accept low pay.

So, after years of being concerned with bottom lines, rather than investing in human capital, MediaNews is hurting. The same could be said for the demise of Circuit City. Although reports will point to many reasons for this retailer's implosion, the lack of dedication to its staff was very apparent.

The lesson? At the end of the day, it all comes down to people. Great companies value employees, and realize their success is built around what their employees produce. It seems so easy, right?

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