After 100 years since Lee’s Declaration of Principles…where are we?

If there is one thing which unites all of us, who practice public relations (disregarding age, experience, country, specific practice)… it is that we were brought up eating, digesting and expelling press releases and media relations. As many are aware, this 2006 marks the one hundredth anniversary since Ivy Ledbetter Lee issued his Declaration of Principles, which, for the first time, rationalised the concept of media relations.Let’s read an excerpt: This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. This is not an advertising agency. If you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most carefully in verifying directly any statement of fact. … In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public…with prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.

Not bad, hey? Now let us read an excerpt from an article appeared in last week’s Washington Post: Hardly a day goes by when I don’t get a phone call from some 20-something in public relations asking if I got the e-mail she just sent or inviting me to a news conference. In seconds, it’s obvious these folks don’t have a clue what I write about — or even know much about their subject. I can’t remember the last time such a pitch worked. But every time, I wonder why any business would spend good money to accomplish so little. Now I know. Those phone calls, and lots of similarly useless work, have become the bread and butter of a business that is less and less about relationships and real knowledge and more and more about meeting monthly targets for billable hours. After all, if you can pay a “senior associate” with four years’ experience $25 an hour to make those calls, and bill them at $200 an hour, you can support a lot of corporate overhead in London or New York and still declare a profit.

Not bad, hey? Now, let’s put two and two together and ask ourselves if what many of us do for a living every day makes any sense….

If the name public relations indicates (at least) that we are in a business which has to do with relationships, the consequence is that we should possess competences which improve the way these relationships are created and developed. Every live individual develops relationships with others, so professionals should know how to do this better than others. This, in turn, implies the existence of an accessible body of knowledge to either improve our ‘natural’ gift for developing a relationship or, in case we do not have such gift, ‘learn’ to do this.

It is my impression that professionals either push on the relationship side, by pervasively adopting the networking or personal influence model, or (but more rarely) push on the content side by compulsively omitting to integrate these with the other side of the coin.

Thus, we find ourselves with two extreme approaches and in the middle, a vast army of ‘re-callers’ who dangerously spam mostly irrelevant or useless information always to the same gatekeepers (journalists, analysts, employees, dealers, suppliers, opinion leaders and all other stakeholder segments one needs to relate with) thus contributing to the most dangerous of all pollutions (information overload) which, besides irritating receivers, produces negative consequences on their ability to concentrate, maintain attention, think and perform the service they are paid to do.

Specifically journalists, in every country in the world are highly and increasingly critical of the way we do things, and most of the time (admittedly not always…. but if they use this alibi in those rare instances in which they are wrong it is because we offer it to them on a silver plate) they seem to be correct. Journalists are more critical than other stakeholder groups simply because they have been in our range of action much longer than other groups and therefore have learned to know us better.

So, before we create for ourselves the same reputation we have been able to create amongst journalists, it is time we stopped for some reflection.

Besides the most obvious considerations, we might want to elaborate on what constitutes a healthy relationship (there is by now a vast literature on this specifically related to our profession, and newcomers will find a lot of useful insights in the website) and evaluate if it makes any sense to ask a young graduate intern (as most of us do) to incessantly re-call journalists if they have received something without being able to proceed the rarely successful conversation beyond the point of entry and answer with competence any question. Way back in the early sixties when I was pr manager in Italy for 3M Company, my American boss John Verstraete was much more interested in my reporting on how many new personal and direct relationships I and my staff had developed with journalists and followed them up by seeing them operate in their work environment, keeping them informed on issues they were interested in even if they were only slightly related to our products, or helping them find the right sources also on unrelated matters, rather than bean counting the number of issued press releases and their placements.In the early seventies, when I was director of communication for Italy’s then largest publisher (Fabbri Editori) I was pitched by Hill & Knowlton, the first international pr agency to open in my country, and I visited their Milan offices to understand what they had to offer. To my amazement, the first tool they had then developed was a data bank of journalists with the indication of many, many (and some, frankly unacceptable, but still interesting) pieces of information on their personalities, wishes, preferences, habits, articles… the names of agency employees of consultants who were in personal and direct contact with them…Sure, sure….new media has changed all this. But still today I make it a must for my young people to pick up their asses from their computer, to unlock the chains which tie them to their desk, and to go out and visit journalists in their premises, to always put a personalised attention grabbing ‘object’ in their email correspondence and, wherever possible, to change the title, the subtitle and the first lines of each single press document to attract the personal attention of the single journalists who is on the receiving line. This of course also has a secondary but highly positive effect: which is that if they are not allowed to spam, they will very carefully select their receivers because finding a personalised angle takes time and mind work, so they limit their distribution to the ones who should be on the receiving line in order to reduce overtime.Why don’t we all chip in and send in more good practices rather than only complain about the bad ones and then be angry when we are accused?


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3 Replies to “After 100 years since Lee’s Declaration of Principles…where are we?

  1. O’ve been thinking since Toni first posted this message.

    First, I checked the Ivy Lea Bridge, from New York State to Ontario, Canada, over the St. Lawrence River. Turns out it was named after the town on the Canadian side, not the PR Man.

    And spelled differently.

    As for going to the news room to meet journalists. Year after year this gets harder to do, for security reasons among others.

    And in Toronto, there are a great many more PR people than journalists, and a vast number of journalists anyway. TYhey’d never get a story written if they were meeting us.

    I’m happy enough that most PR people stay away.

    And when a newspaper has four or five people rotating through the assignment editor job in a week dpending on the shift and the day… who do we go see, anyway.

    That said, if you are a PR person in a speciality, and there is a beat reporter with that speciality, yes, contacts can be made.

    As for the twinkies calling… I just finished a novel by Steve Bocho (writer, prodcuer of Hill street Blues, NYPD Blue,a nd much more) where he refers to a meeting inHollywood where a big time lawyer took an associate for the sole purpose of being able to bill $200 an hour for more hours.

    I’ve worked for the biggest PR agency in the world. Our goal was to find enough for our people to do that we could honestly bill the client for the total amount of money in the project fee.

    If we had, instead, an on-going monthly retainer, we could spend some of our time building relationships, but project billing prevents this.

    And in a city like Toronto; Two national daily papers, two local paid papers, two local free papers, three national television news departments, four good local television news departments, and hundreds of trade and industry magazines… how are we supposed to decide which clients, and which stories from those clients, would be advanced by building relationships with which journalists?

    And in television, you can’t even find out who the producers are, and they are the real powers behind the stories.

    So, the premise of knowing journalists is certainly easier said than done.

    Which reminds me, I need to drop a note to a magazine editor.


  2. I couldn’t agree more – relationships with journalists, should be the same that you’d want to make with anyone. Based on trust and respect. If you have time to make a call or send an email (and it isn’t always practical to visit, although nothing beats meeting someone face to face) – make it time that adds value to the relationship. Correspondence should be personal rather than mass mailed. This can certainly be facilitated by the latest technology. PR practitioners shouldn’t be cold callers from faceless telephone centres – but genuine contacts who look to build mutually beneficial relationships. Press releases should not be junk mail or spam.

    Sending an individual email to comment positively on an article (even if it has nothing to do with a client) or responding in an interesting way to a blog post will help develop that relationship. Gaining a reputation for being informed and helpful is essential.

    Contacts have always been of value to PR practitioners – never more so than today.

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