Arthur Yann: public relations in a fishbowl
An in-depth interview with the gent practising PR for the world’s largest organization of public relations professionals
There’s an irony that public relations as a discipline struggles to manage the industry’s reputation. Why do you think this is the case?
There’s some truth to the “shoemaker’s children” analogy, but the root causes go well beyond that.
For one thing, the profession hasn’t done itself any favors when it comes to managing its own reputation. High-profile ethical transgressions run the gamut from failing to disclose interests represented, to creating fake blogs, to posting bogus product reviews, to exchanging value for “earned” media. Plus, it’s hard to defend practitioners who work on behalf of dictators or terrorists; while everyone has a right to have their voice heard, our work must serve the public interest above all else.
Public relations also has failed to build a bank of public goodwill that would help the profession get ahead of these stories. Almost no one talks about the public good served by public relations, but we’re all witness to the tremendous amount of media coverage generated by public relations scandals. The reality is that public relations has changed attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues, but our own behavior as an aggregate has compromised that brand equity.
Not to mention a general lack of understanding of what public relations professionals actually do. And what fills that void? Television shows like Kel on Earth, The Spin Crowd and PowerRGirls, which further the perception that all we do is hobnob with celebrities, plan parties and generate publicity.
What is PRSA is doing to manage the industry’s reputation and role?
PRSA has three specific advocacy initiatives, aimed at improving the reputation of the industry.
The first is our Code of Ethics and, along with it, an effort to educate the profession on what does and doesn’t constitute ethical behavior. While PRSA does not have the legal or regulatory authority to sanction public relations practitioners—other than our own 32,000 professional and student members—who don’t abide by this code, we can call attention to unethical behavior, condemn such actions and explain why they’re unacceptable.
The second initiative is “The Business Case for Public Relations,” which is a set of resources and message points for practitioners to use in creating more accurate and better-informed perceptions of the role and value of public relations. It contains useful information on everything from measurement standards to communicating public relations’ value.
The final program, introduced this year (2011), is called PRServing America. It’s an award program created to highlight the pro bono work undertaken by PRSA’s professional and student Chapters, Sections and Districts, to strengthen and preserve the local communities in which they live and work (all of which are in the United States, hence the name).
Increasingly, there’s competition for carriage and authority regarding public relations. Which organizations or individuals are PRSA’s competitors for attention and loyalty?
There are certain PRSA products and services facing increased competition in recent years. Three that come immediately to mind are our professional development offerings, PRSA’s Silver Anvil Awards and our Jobcenter.
Certainly, bloggers are giving away information for free or at a small cost as a way of establishing their expertise. Some of this is information PRSA previously delivered via seminar, teleseminar and webinar. That being said, we believe the training available through PRSA offers unique benefits, such as the ability to base our counsel and advice on the collective experience of our members.
It also seems like most trade publications covering the PR industry now have a job board, conference or awards program of one type or another. Also, many large agencies offer training programs that epitomize the professional development opportunities available through PRSA.
As an organization, we do compete for members at times with local publicity clubs or organizations that cater to public relations and communications professionals in specific industry verticals; however, there is no other organization of public relations professionals in the USA that can match the products, services, benefits, scope and influence of PRSA.
We’re also the most inclusive organization of public relations professionals, with members from public relations agencies, corporations, government, health care institutions, the military, professional services firms, associations, non-profit organizations and academia, as well as students.
With which organization does PRSA have the strongest alliances?
We’re willing to play nicely in the sandbox with most anyone.
PRSA also has had areas of cooperation with NBPRS, HPRA, IPR, WOMMA, CIPR, PRCA and The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management. We also have a lot of respect for the work being done by CPRS and look forward to partnering opportunities in the future.
How can industry associations remain relevant to the new generations of PR practitioners who came of age in an open-access social media environment? In particular, where they’re used to developing their own personal networks?
That’s a great question. It’s a mentality that we see quite a bit: young practitioners who feel that they can replace face-to-face networking and learning through participation in virtual communities. We also know that young professionals struggle at times with affording the costs of joining professional associations.
We approach this challenge in a couple of different ways.
First, is through our student society, PRSSA. Students can join a PRSSA Chapter at any one of more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States for free and receive access to many PRSA products and services that will help to enhance their education, broaden their networks and launch their careers.
Next, we discount the cost of membership for young professionals. PRSSA members and individuals with less than one, or fewer than two years of experience can join for a fraction of the regular PRSA membership cost. This applies to graduate-level students, as well.
Finally, we offer a New Professionals professional interest section, which is one of 14 PRSA “micro-communities” organized around specific industry niches. It gives them a chance to network with and learn from a community of their peers, and is led by young professionals who focus its agenda on issues of importance to young professionals.
Should flexible communities of practice be encouraged as a way of increasing broader education in PR, rather than traditional approaches of training courses and qualifications?
I think there’s value in both, which seems appropriate, given that individuals learn in different ways.
Personally, I’ve always felt that one of the greatest benefits of being a PRSA member is the collective learning and sharing of experiences among members to solve mutual or individual problems.
For example, if you look at the mission statement of our Counselors Academy professional interest section (of which I was a member in my agency days) it says, “Our purpose is to enable collaborative peer relationships in which meaningful business counsel, operational best practices and industry trends can be shared and gained.”
It’s sometimes hard to believe the genuine sharing of information that goes on at the Counselors Academy Conference—or any PRSA conference for that matter—but the spirit of co-operation is palpable. Everyone is giving of his or her time and willing to share insights into the practices that have translated into success. I think this goes along with the argument that the best education is attained not in the classroom, but in the actual field of endeavor.
Having said all of that, I should also point out that I’m proud to hold the accredited in public relations (APR) credential. The process of attaining accreditation made me a more knowledgeable and confident practitioner, so I believe strongly in it and in other types of formal continuing education, such as PRSA’s professional development learning opportunities.
After all, the real learning takes place when you combine the theoretical and practical. And the power of a large professional community, such as PRSA’s, is that we can offer different types of learning experiences for different members.
There’s increasing convergence between the remits of PR and marketing. Should practitioners seek to build a career based on more general management competencies, rather than remaining pigeon-holed as corporate communication specialists?
Yes, but I believe we’re already well on our way to doing so.
Marketers now are more inclusive of public relations because they better understand how reputation affects brand performance and sales. And marketers are more accepting of the fact that they need to be engaged with all of their organization’s stakeholders, not just their customers and their employees.
Richard Edelman, speaking at PRSA’s 2011 Leadership Rally (a weekend of training for PRSA’s Chapter, Section and District leaders), offered a great example of how public relations is the discipline best prepared to handle the myriad challenges that today’s businesses face. He pointed to Germany’s decision to phase out its nuclear power by 2012 as an example. “What issues does this raise?” he asked. “Is it an ecosystem problem? Is it a jobs problem, an economic problem, a stockholder problem?” The answer is that it’s each of these…and probably more.
So in that regard, public relations practitioners are already straddling the line between consulting and communications. This means we must possess more general management competencies and be capable of identifying all the key stakeholders around an issue and addressing their wants and needs in analytical, data-driven ways. And, of course, also be capable of building bridges and forging relationships that will help to solve those issues.
On a related note, you may have seen PRSA’s recent op-ed in Marketing Week titled, “It’s a Fallacy that Marketers Can’t be Good CEOs.” It was written in response to recent features in that magazine, the first of which noted that 73 percent of CEOs say “marketers lack credibility” to adequately lead businesses; the second of which put forth the thoughts of Merlin Entertainment CEO Nick Varney, who apparently feels that marketers are too “siloed” to become CEOs.
In addition to making points similar to those above, our response pointed out that many executives with creative or communications backgrounds have proven quite adept at managing at the highest levels of government and business. Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP is but one example.
Professionally, what do you find frustrating? For example, the biggest misconceptions that refuse to go away or ongoing forms of mischief making?
I recently wrote about one of my biggest frustrations for the PRBreakfastClub blog. And that is, the number of self-proclaimed experts on Twitter and other social media platforms.
I mean who or what qualifies so many opinions? On what basis in fact are many statements made? Do these industry “observers” actually know anything about what it is they’re commenting about? Have they read and do they understand what they’re re-tweeting, given the third-party perception is that they’re endorsing the content?
Nearly 16,000 Twitter users are self-described “gurus” of one sort or another. And, I can’t even begin to guess how many bloggers and other assorted digerati view themselves in a similarly authoritative light. As I pointed out on PRBreakfastClub, at least some of these individuals need to get over themselves. Most aren’t the experts or gurus they would have you believe (well, maybe at personal branding), but just regular folks with opinions, some intelligent and well-reasoned and some—to be honest—just plain ignorant.
As public relations professionals, we’ve come to realize (sadly) that the speed, tenor and stridency of social media communications have come to count more than depth, balance, facts and expertise. In other words: You can’t always believe everything you read in the blogosphere. Or, for that matter, elsewhere.
As far as misconceptions go, I think the biggest one is that it’s the role of PRSA to enforce ethical conduct on behalf of the entire industry. We’re one of the only—if not the only—organization of public relations professionals that regularly speaks out on issues of professional ethics; yet, people accuse us of being everything from “toothless” to “irrelevant,” because we don’t sanction or “de-certify” professionals who commit ethical transgressions.
Simply put, those same people (the majority of whom are non-members) don’t appreciate or understand PRSA’s mission. They are asking PRSA to solve a problem that we don’t have the authority or proclivity to solve.
At the most basic level are issues of co-operation, cost, staffing, jurisdiction (the entire PR industry, or just PRSA members?) and, of course, a legal fund to defend PRSA against anyone who felt we came to the wrong conclusion in “de-certifying” him or her. Even the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) urges caution on the subject of enforceable codes.
So, while it would be interesting to wield such powers—even fun to think about—it’s frankly impossible in an unregulated industry in the United States that enjoys broad First Amendment protections. Moreover, ensuring adherence to ethical standards of conduct is the responsibility of each and every individual working in this industry, not just of PRSA.
To date, what are your contributions to the positive side of the balance sheet of PRSA’s mandate or administration?
Our public relations program for PRSA supports the achievement of key organizational objectives, as set forth in the Society’s three-year strategic plan. One way we go about determining our efficacy in that regard is by setting specific, measurable objectives for metrics that directly impact the achievement of these objectives.
So, for example, data for the last two years shows that we’ve had a positive impact in changing attitudes and perceptions toward PRSA in a host of areas, such as “Recognition of PRSA as a Thought Leader,” “Understand What PRSA Does” and “Feels PRSA Offers Relevant Professional Development for Senior Professionals.”
Also—and you can argue whether this is a good or bad thing—I’m one of only a handful of public relations professionals on PRSA’s staff. Earlier in my career, I spent 20 years working at New York agencies, including a boutique firm in which I had an ownership stake, so I’ve worn quite a few different professional hats.
On that basis, I’m able to base my counsel on hands-on, real-world professional knowledge and experience, complemented by the traditional, association-management backgrounds that many of the executives here possess.
It’s helpful to understand the issues, the players and the mindset. Or to be able to say, “Hey, I know him/her; he/she should be speaking or writing for us.”
[Editor’s note: Arthur Yann’s PR department team members and their responsibilities are detailed at the end of this interview.]
It’s self-audit time. What are your strengths?
I’m passionate about what I do and ethical and fair in the way that I do it.
I also try to maintain a sense of humor and use it regularly as a way to defuse difficult situations or conversations. I also use humor as a way of responding (in-kind, you might say) to some of the sublimely ridiculous things people say about PRSA or the profession.
But what I’d really like people to say about me after I’m gone is that, in some small ways, I left the profession and the companies and clients I represented better than when I first met them.
Any weaknesses, including how you work to overcome them?
I can be emotional and impatient, and I have a tendency to take things personally, even when the issue or topic really isn’t about me.
Maybe this sounds strange or overly simplistic, but being a new father to Sofia has given me an entirely new perspective that has been helpful in managing these tendencies. My wife, Amy, says fatherhood has brought out the best in me but, of course, she’s biased.
If you were able to set the priorities for PRSA without the need for consultation and consensus, what and where would you spend the most time in your role right now?
On improving the reputation of the profession.
Also, the civility of online discourse. For example, I really admire and respect what CiviliNation is doing.
Share some things about you that might surprise the average PRSA member or other stakeholders
Only my professional colleagues and my Mother call me Arthur. To everyone else, I’m just “Art.”
Besides that, my eclectic musical taste surprises some people. I’m also starting guitar lessons, but don’t look for me on stage anytime soon.
Finally, what’s more important to you: being liked or being respected?
That’s something I struggle with. As the son of a salesman, I saw how hard my father worked to be liked, because it was important for success in his line of work.
That desire to be liked definitely rubbed off on me, but it’s better to be respected than liked, I think.
As always, further questions or comments are invited (see PR Conversations’ Talking Points), but as this PR Motion interview relates to Arthur Yann’s role at PRSA, please limit your commentary to his term (August 2008 to present), as well as to areas for which he has direct decision-making authority or responsibility.
Thanks are extended to Heather Yaxley for contributing some of the interview questions.
Arthur Yann, APR, is vice president, public relations, for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), where he supports the achievement of organizational goals set forth in PRSA’s strategic plan, and advocates on behalf of the public relations profession and its practitioners. Arthur Yann served PRSA in a volunteer capacity for a number of years, prior to joining its staff. He is a member of PRSA’s New York Chapter and Association/Non-Profit Section.
His CV includes more than 20 years of New York agency experience, launching and revitalizing consumer and business products, managing corporate reputations and crises and building brands, including his award-winning (Gold SABRE, Silver Anvil and Big Apple) tenure as senior vice president at HealthStar Public Relations. Earlier in his career, after selling his boutique public relations firm to Cramer-Krasselt in Chicago, Arthur was director of the New York office of CKPR, where he led a team of professionals serving a roster of iconic consumer and business brands.
He holds a journalism degree from Ohio University.
Team members in the PR department
Keith Trivitt, public relations director. Main responsibilities are PRSA board and executive communications, thought leadership and advocacy. Primary focus areas of the advocacy program: create more accurate and better-informed perceptions of the role and value of public relations; set and promote ethical standards of behavior on the part of public relations professionals; and encourage greater diversity within the industry.
Diane Gomez, public relations manager. Main responsibilities are social media and marketing communications. Develops and maintains PRSA social media policies and assets. Handles public relations for major PRSA product and service areas, including the Silver Anvil Awards, international and digital conferences, and Jobcenter.
Melissa Snead, public relations associate. Main responsibilities include organizational communications, media relations, research, monitoring and reporting and special projects. Also supports the vice president, director and manager across all program areas.
Links to this post:
- The Week’s Best, 18 July 2011 (Teaching PR blog)
- Arthur Yann: Rp all’insegna della trasparenza (ferpi website)