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.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

City still skittish about PR

UPDATE (1/29): The City Council committee reviewing these contracts has delayed a decision on whether to overrule the Airport Commission's decision.  PRSA-LA Chapter president Steve Roth testified at the committee meeting and provided a letter.  We expect this matter to come back to the committee within the next two weeks.

 The City of Los Angeles' 8-year-old saga over using public relations agencies comes up again this week. It's time for all PR pros in the city to cry "foul" and tell everyone to get "get over it" and realize that Public Relations has a very proper role in government.

Two councilmen are questioning a pending contract with the well-regarded Phelps agency for "public outreach and education." (This is the now-popular phrase used with government PR contracts to avoid the words "public relations."  More on that later).

One LA Times story (above) quotes the airport's government affairs director. The better quotes, I believe, are from their managing director for public relations (see, someone not afraid to use those words) Mary Grady, who is a communications veteran and well-regarded PR pro in LA.  Funny how a newspaper has one set of stories in a blog, then their "final" story looks different.

Why PR contracts in LA are controversial goes back to 2004, when the mayor cancelled all PR contracts in the wake of a scandal involving a major PR firm with political ties to the mayor. The local GM of that agency went to jail for over-billing the city.   PRSA and its Los Angeles chapter put up a big fight then, arguing that the over-billing issue was an isolated incident and against our Code of Ethics. One incident should not prompt a ban on all PR work.  We complained about why PR should be treated any differently than other outside vendors, such as engineers?  There are plenty of incidents involving bad contracting with other professions and services, yet the city never instituted a ban on an entire industry.

Ever since, the Los Angeles PRSA chapter has maintained its advocacy efforts in hopes of removing any stigma in the eyes of public officials.  This included a study commissioned by the chapter to monetize the value of the PR industry on the LA economy.

Disclosure:  I once worked for an agency that provided public affairs and community relations services to the Los Angeles Airport. This work was performed more than 10 years ago.  But, for anyone who has lived in Los Angeles for more than 5 years knows that LAX has a lot of issues - primarily with expanding its runways to handle more flights. What I was doing more than 10 years ago hasn't gone away - they are still fighting for an expansion.

So, we have two issues here:

  1. A giant public agency like the Los Angeles World Airports is bound to need outside public relations help.  Aside from their long-running effort to expand, the airport touches millions of lives every day in the city and around the world.  The local battle over expansion has lasted years and is highly complex, especially given the number of organized groups opposing expansion.  There are TONS of meetings to hold, REAMS of information to share and a huge GOAL of communicating to various audiences the importance of the airport to the region and why it needs to expand.  These efforts require dedicated specialists. The in-house team simply is not big enough, or has the authority to advocate or the various specialties required to carry out the multiple tasks required for this effort. The sad fact is that the same LA City Council members complaining about money spent on an outside agency would be the very same ones questioning why the LAWA in-house communications team is so large (should they hire the requisite number of PR pros to meet the tasks before the agency).  The complex needs for outreach and education do not go away.  Without a strong communications (oops. public relations) effort, the expansion opponents would win because they will have no one to counter the many-times false and unsubstantiated claims about the expansion. The opponents will have gained more followers because no one is reaching out to the community to remind them of all the positive things about LAX - like how many people depend on LAX for jobs, or the revenue brought to the region, or...or...
  2. The importance of the public relations profession.  The same City Council members complaining about this pending contract are hypocrites. They have used public relations to their advantage. They have their own communications staff, send out news releases, etc.  So, why is it NOT critical for Los Angeles International Airport to communicate and use proven, effective public relations strategies and tactics when these council members use the very same strategies and tactics on a daily basis for their own needs?  And don't get me started when election season rolls up - and how council members hire multiple agencies to communicate why they should be re-elected.
I understand this becomes an issue when a public relations contract is valued at $1 million or more. The red flags come up. (California's governor recently nixed a multi-million-dollar public relations and video contract for a major infrastructure project). However, these are long-term contracts.  A $1 million contract over four years is $250,000 a year - the annual full price of 2-3 full-time communications employees. What a PR agency brings for that price is the work product equivalent of 4-5 employees, plus a whole lot of experience and expertise that otherwise would cost $100,000 or more a year per person for a public agency to bring this level of PR pro in house.

A "PR effort" is not about lying or deceiving.  Those actions are clearly a violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics.  What PR is:
  • An important effort to get information to the public in a world jammed with information. 
  • It involves research to understand public sentiment, how people and groups want to receive information and how they want to be treated.   
  • PR involves significant expertise to lay out information in a way that gets the point across and substantiate the messages.  
  • PR involves setting up meetings - and knowing how to reach communities that otherwise have many other things on their minds.  
  • PR is about calling attention to important issues.  
Have I modified terminology with my public agency work to reflect "public outreach and education" so cities and public agencies don't risk criticism for hiring a PR agency?  Yes. Guilty as charged.  But, public outreach and education is just one facet of the public relations profession.

It's time we defend our profession.