Boston Herald Columnist has PR folks circling the wagons, but this time, gang, the reporter is onto something

Memo to the PR industry:

Let’s all calm down about the Boston Herald column by Brett Arends slamming corporate PR people for not returning calls and not having the ability to answer simple questions.

Many PR people are rising up in anger with war stories about “when I was in corporate communications this reporter did that to me…” and all the grievances about reporters that you can think of. The column has been widely blogged. And here too.

But whoa, kiddies. Arends is right!

Strange words coming from someone who sits on the PRSA Board, I know. But let’s stop being emotional and look at this objectively.

Let’s take a minute and think about the underlying trend that Arends’ observation hints at.

Corporations, large ones like the big financial institution that gobbled up my employer last year and sent me off into severance land, are drastically reducing their dependence on in-house PR people.

Corporate PR practitioners with lots of experience command decent salaries.

Big companies like to reduce decent salaries whenever possible, so when it’s time to reduce headcount, seasoned PR people are often among those heads whose count gets reduced.

The same day I got tossed overboard, they also tossed a guy who had been handling media relations crises for the company for nearly three decades.

How do you let that much institutional memory and expertise walk out the door? And if you do make a decision to cut expenses in that way, how can you be surprised when reporters notice that the level of service has declined dramatically?

Reporters are, in a sense, customers of the PR department. And if the way you serve those customers gets changed dramatically, why are we shooting the messenger who’s writing about how things have changed?

I’ve talked to lots of reporters recently who have complained about how big companies don’t return calls, don’t tell them anything useful on the rare occasions when they do return calls, and frankly don’t seem to care if the reporters write about the company at all.

This is not going to pay off in great good will for these companies when they need community support for some initiative. If you only deal with reporters when you want something from them, you will be very sorry.

I know of one company in the financial sector that used to have a national team of media relations professionals representing its interests at a ratio of nearly one person for every state in which this company operated.

Know how many people handle regional media for them now?

One, with occasional help from very junior people who don’t know the reporters, don’t understand the issues. These junior people are paid a fraction of what the expert, senior practitioners used to earn, and all they can do is read from a script, if they are even given that much to say.

The bottom line is not that reporters are being unfair.

The true story is that large companies have made a conscious, cost-cutting decision that having expert counsel from veteran media relations people is NOT something they want to pay for right now.

And so a lot of very young, very junior/inexperienced people are answering calls from reporters they don’t know and don’t know how to handle.

The few, more-seasoned PR people tend to be at a distant headquarters, and generally their job is to shield executives from press inquiries by barking orders to those very junior people, who only are allowed to answer the phone, but don’t have the authority to do or say anything.

As PR leaders, that’s what we should be concerned about.

Brett Arends is telling our profession that it smells like something is burning. We should not be criticizing him for noticing the smoke!

We should be figuring out how to get corporate senior executives to understand that they are stoking the fire, and it will singe their eyebrows eventually.

1 Comment

  1. Nice piece, Steve. It’s not a coincidence that the same forces that have led to our current “crisis in journalism” (reduced reporting and editorial staff, overreliance on freelancers who often play more of an advocacy role than a journalistic one)are creating a similar crisis in corporate communications. The people who make the financial decisions are trading short-term savings for long-term loss of credibility and goodwill. And if the ramifications for the corporations are bad, for the public they are far worse. No good can come of this trend.

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