Monday, February 28, 2011

Publicists vs. public relations

Of all things.

Charlie Sheen's situation actually provides another great case study to help public relations professionals explain how our job is different from the duties of a publicist.

Today, Sheen's long-term publicist, Stan Rosenfield, quit. The story on ABC's website carries some pretty handy terminology that should help the mainstream media and the general public understand the differences.

It is clear that Stan, a very well respected publicist, has had his share of offering up "unique" defenses of his clients. You know, the kind of explanations that instantly draw a "yeah, right" response by the masses, yet remain effective because the "official word" helps deflect more attention or helps quiet the story.

Stan's efforts worked well for Charlie, because up to the last few weeks, the public was mostly sympathetic to Charlie. Even after Charlie nearly killed himself, allegedly strangled his wife, destroyed a hotel room, did enough drugs to wipe out a million lab mice and more. Even after all that, Charlie was not hated. So, Stan must have been doing something right.

So, before I give more props to his former publicist, the point is this: While public relations professionals are routinely called upon to defend reputations, the PR pros who follow codes of ethics do so without trying to "spin" the story. They advise clients on how to get out of a jam - and that usually means being apologetic and remorseful, to right the wrong, to admit guilt and to ask for the public's indulgence while we try to get past this difficult moment.

But it's tough to get our "difference" pointed out. We both - publicist and PR pro - are in daily contact with the same crowd: journalists. All they see is someone trying to "sell" them a story or "spin" a story.

It is difficult for PR pros to point across the field and say "See those people? They are publicists." As if we should also add the word "evil" before that job description, followed by: "We're not like them. We're better."

We can't do that. For one, our professional counsel and strategy usually tells clients not to deflect the attention and certainly not respond to a negative with a negative. Second, there are many good publicists who have the respect of journalists. The late Ronnie Chasen was noted for that.

So, how do we distinguish ourselves?

I know many good PR pros who would never accept a problem client. It's important to note that we certainly are great at crisis communication - because something "out of character" happened to a company. Yet, there are plenty of PR pros who drop clients with questionable backgrounds and character. Why? Because PR pros don't like to lie or hide truths and if a client's day-to-day operation and DNA gets into the red zone of deceit, we'll walk away.

PR pros continually advise clients that it's better to offer up the truth - sooner rather than later. A client will earn greater respect with the media, and the public, if they are upfront and honest. Problems go away sooner this way. If you try to hide something, it will be found out eventually and blow up to a worse problem.

We don't spin. (Keep reading a great blog on this call SPINSUCKS) Spin is a "daily" event. PR pros are more concerned with long-term reputations - and that's done by building trust and credibility, by reading and understanding the audience and making sure we communicate in terms they will understand and accept. Proven, proven, proven.

Like publicists, we also tell stories. There are a thousand stories to be told with a lot of competition within a very narrow space to get our story heard, and heard correctly. So, PR pros must know how to effectively navigate this landscape. To make sure our story "breaks out" from all the other noise and clutter.


Angela said...

Thankfully there is public relations technology in effect or the public might not ever hear the truth. Constantly hearing the junk that makes us all say "yeah right" gets rather old after a while. Hearing the truth doesn't have to be bad, everyone makes mistakes and hearing that a company made one just makes them even more human.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Denis. I deal with this confusion all the time in the Vegas PR market. My PR practice has nothing to do with red carpets or celebrities, but my publicist colleagues and I share many common hurdles, including managing some interesting personalities. Fortunately mine just stay in the office. ;)