Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is PR a waste of money?

"A waste of money."

This was one of a few pointed statements by a Los Angeles city council member critical of three public relations and communications contracts that were awarded by the board overseeing the city's international airport (LAX).

"Outrageous amount of money."

That was in a newspaper editorial this week blasting the airport board for considering hiring three outside communications agencies and questioning aloud why these tasks can't be done by in-house staff.

The council member had invoked a rule that allows the LA city council to assume jurisdiction over an individual item, like a major public relations contract, originally decided on by one of the many city commissions. Most of the time, the council keeps its hands off decisions by its various commissions.

Reporters and other well-versed observers see the council member's actions and statements as simple grandstanding for his election bid as city controller. Calling for fiscal constraint and finding an easy target like a PR contract does wonders for the campaign.

But, sigh, "PR" and "millions of dollars" linked in the same breath can and does bring attention, and once again we in the public relations profession must defend and explain what we do.

Most PR professionals have heard these same arguments before:
"Why does a newsletter or a press release or a poster cost $X million?"
"Why can't staff handle this?"
"Just what are we communicating here?"

A problem we have in PR is measuring success and defining exactly what we do.  Lawyers win judgments. Engineers deliver drawings. Accountants provide detailed financial reports.  These are easy to understand concepts.

Crisis communications is often the closest we come to defining success. We get companies through these difficult times - sometimes avoiding litigation, sometimes averting a sting to the stock price, many times making sure customers keep buying their products. (Think: Dominoes pizza)

Another problem with PR is that our course is never charted exactly as the last journey. The result is that each program we design is different: Individualized is good for the client because it's specific to their need, but bad when explaining it to the public and skeptics because it's not a widget you can hold in your hand.

We are paid to anticipate. We are paid to understand the public. We are paid to know how to handle a lot of various circumstances. We are paid to listen to an issue, research it, and use our skills and knowledge to lay out a plan that can communicate it to multiple audiences. We are paid to make the complex easy to understand.  We are paid to make sure our client's voices are heard - otherwise the vacuum provides others to fill the void with many times wrong or misleading information. 

It's the "PR guy" (or gal) who knows a great opportunity, like when John Black at the Los Angeles Lakers gets an email from a guy who wants the basketball team to recognize his buddy's combat service. Black, one very skilled public relations pro I've known over the years, immediately recognizes the opportunity to create a joyous occasion. The result is a surprise reunion at a Lakers game, thanks to the Lakers.  It was the right thing to do, it would demonstrate the Lakers' commitment to its fans - and it was orchestrated by "the PR guy."

It's the PR agency hired to manage communications around a major public construction project. With it comes a lengthy and complex environmental impact report, listing things like the potential harm to wildlife, noise to neighborhoods, interruptions to traffic patterns, etc. As the project begins, these impacts usually come to life and begin getting attention. A solid PR plan that was developed far in advance of construction anticipated when and how various audiences will begin to react. The PR plan goes into action to remind the public why the project was needed (a discussion held perhaps years before construction and long forgotten). Before the first shovel of dirt is turned, PR pros will have conducted community meetings, developed information materials and monitored public sentiment to identify "hot-button" issues that require even more care and handling.

PR is not "spin." In an era where information can be easily found online, deception doesn't work nor is it what PR folks preach.  PR pros advocate for honest, open communications.  PR pros will often talk about the lengths they went to convince executives to be forthright and lay it all on the table.  That said, what PR pros are paid to do is make sure all sides of an issue are understood and treated fairly.  Too often, a critic will call out the worst aspect or try to "spin" the story in their favor.  PR pros are paid to respond and remind people about the "other," factual side of the story.

To answer "Why need PR?", let's start by examining the need.  Let's use the newspaper's logic:  Why need outside PR help when the airport already is attracting large number of visitors. Why need outside PR help when the airport already has a large PR and communications department?

The Los Angeles World Airports, which runs LAX, saw a "temporary" need to have extra PR help during the modernization program.  Existing airport staff already have their plates full with their normal day-to-day duties - whether it's marketing the airport to airlines that may expand their operations, or pull back, the community relations team dealing with a variety of daily issues in the neighborhood or other tenants, the media team handling calls about incidents at the airport, etc. 

The modernization work requires additional, temporary help - the same as when public agencies or city departments require additional legal help on specific or unique cases.  It doesn't make fiscal sense to hire permanent staff for what ends up being a short-term project.  And, perhaps better than some other professions, the work product left behind from a communications and public relations contract will have lasting positive value long after the PR agency's work is done.  These include materials, messages, positive and productive lines of communication with various audiences and communities, and more. These will continue to be utilized by the existing airport staff.

And to the editorial's blatant disregard for fairness - the city getting burned by outside PR companies - let's set the record straight.  It was an isolated incident involving just one PR agency.  The same kind of corruption or criminal activity can and has happened in other industries. There are plenty of over-billing incidents involving other city contracts, such as with construction projects. However, there were no industry-wide bans when wrong-doing was exposed in these other contracts. It's not fair to punish the entire profession for one bad apple.  

The vast majority of PR professionals adhere to strict ethical standards. PRSA-Los Angeles came out strongly when the incident first broke that this was not reflective of the public relations profession and reminded everyone about our strict Code of Ethics that we all sign and pledge to follow.  What's more, PR pros advocate for a close accounting of its billing. We know our invoices will be scrutinized.

Keep reading for more.

No comments: