Is the PR lunch dead?

When’s the last time you enjoyed a traditional PR lunch? Not necessarily the three hour marathons of legend where enough wine was consumed to keep a small vineyard in business, but one where you met with a contact, probably a member of the media, to talk about ideas, share some gossip/intelligence and do that all important, relationship building, which included a meal in a proper restaurant.

If you can’t readily remember – and aren’t suffering the afterglow of such an event – perhaps you’ll answer yes to the question: Is the PR lunch dead?

A combination of four factors suggest this established PR practice is under threat, if not already long buried:

  • Return on investment: A need to prove the value of PR activities may not be possible if the lunch doesn’t lead to an immediate payback. Relationship building may deliver longer-term, but sometimes this relates to intangibles rather than obvious media coverage or measurable outcomes.
  • Ethical concerns: In the UK, there are various rules and regulations developing that impact on socialising. The latest discussion here regarding controls on lobbying is one reason why contact may be strictly business in future. Then there’s corporate manslaughter which could apply if you’ve been generous with the bubbly and your guest has a car accident. Or the Bribery Act which may affect the desire to offer corporate hospitality.
  • Time pressures: Who’s got time for lunch anyway? We’re all super busy, grabbing a snack here or skipping any midday repast. Besides, it really isn’t good for your reputation to be seen enjoying yourself when budgets are cut and clients won’t pick up the tab for such niceties anymore.
  • Virtual contacts: We’re all building contacts via social media, so no lunch is required. We spend the time chatting, swapping information or otherwise engaging with relationship building in the online world. A Tweet-lunch doesn’t sound as viable as a Tweet-Up or Tweet-Chat does it?
  • So is the PR lunch dead? Personally I think there’s still a lot to be said for sharing a relaxed meal with a valued contact as it seems an inherently human way to get to know someone and talk, face-to-face. Not on a huge expenses-account basis, but not simply a rushed sandwich or boring stand up chat over a conference/event buffet either.

    Maybe PR has grown up and is all serious meetings with targeted stakeholders, planned to deliver key performance metrics against strategic objectives. Or maybe everyone’s just too boring and we no longer have the social skills that used to be essential in a PR practitioner. Or that ‘Old Boys Network’ approach has been crushed by the feminization of PR? Or perhaps I’m wrong and the PR lunch is alive and well, we’re just not talking about it as a justifiable relationship-building method these days.

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7 Replies to “Is the PR lunch dead?

  1. One of Eva Jannotti’s least recognized but most valuable merits (she is the reputed italian crisis communication guru who ran the association’s professional development member program for five years) is to have enforced ‘cerimoniale’ or ‘etiquette’ as a regulare feature of the program. In many global, regional, local or national organizations many of us are called to make sure that increasingl complex forms of etiquette are respected. Corny? Banal? To the contrary.

    When in the eighties I was ceo of scr associati, italy’s at the time largest and most reputed pr agency, I made it mandatory for each of our professionals, whatever their age or the experience, to remove their behinds from chair and land phone at least five times a week to visit their interlocutors (mostly journalists or politicians at the time as financial analysts came in the nineties) in their own work environments, develop personal relationships over drinks and lunches (albeit under the imperative of sharing the tab unless the scope was clearly directed to a specific issue and/or outcome).

    I even remember that when the weekly newsmagazine Panorama moved from the center of Milano to its outskirts, we all noticed a sudden drop in the quality of the news coverage.

    These are all memoirs that do not relate any longer to those who today flock the profession and use apps, smartphones, tablets and the lot as an integrated (!) self-extension of their sexual organs (honny soit qui mal y pense).

    Thank you Heather! and thank you Judy for your comment.

    1. Toni, This is an interesting perspective on relationship building. I think there is some recognition at least that PR practitioners need to understand different cultural issues (such as the ‘right’ way to greet someone eg in Asian cultures). But I’ve found that if we emphasise aspects of etiquette, then there is a feeling that we are being fluffy and PR is now too professional for that.

      I think in Jacquie L’Etang’s history of British Public Relations, she views the early years of the CIPR (IPR as it was then ie 1948 foundation), where the notion of being the right sort of chap, and reflecting the right type of manners is as old-fashioned in a non-professional way. Similarly, Lee Edwards has observed how these aspects of PR act as a barrier for BME practitioners in progressing their careers. Hence perhaps an emphasis more on meritocracy (supposedly) rather than etiquette or connections.

      But, I agree with you, that knowing how to behave appropriately is important, as is having the time and focus to build relationships. If instead of seeing it as etiquette, we see it as the opposite of being rude, perhaps that shows the continuum isn’t one of snobbery but of being professional in our interpersonal relationships.

      Knowing how to dress, what wine to order, how to manage conversations, facilitate introductions and so on shouldn’t be seen as something that is PR of yesterday. I have often seen young, female practitioners judged on the way they dress at evening media functions. They are wearing lovely dresses for Summer balls, but not necessarily presenting themselves appropriately to be viewed as professionals in a work environment. If they are to avoid the PR bunny label, and don’t realise how important such aspects are, then surely it would be inappropriate not to offer such advice. Similarly, Paul Elmer’s paper (http://www.prismjournal.org/fileadmin/Praxis/Files/Gender/Elmer.pdf) looks at issues relating to the PR man (from an embodied and emotional labour perspective).

      I’m not saying it is right be judged by how we look and behave, or that there should be barriers that effectively prevent the recruitment, promotion and success of those who don’t know how to ‘play the game’, but there are some matters of basic politeness and other times when at least knowing how the game is played, enables us to avoid being left out of it.

  2. Right before Heather was about to hit “Publish” this tip came in from the folks who wrote the wonderful Work the Pond! book about effective networking. Heather suggested it as a comment, regarding lunchtime (or any meal) “etiquette.”

    Weekly POSITIVE NETWORKING (R) Tip+
    No. 495 July 24, 2013

    DOES THIS SEEM RUDE?

    By Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson & Darcy Rezac

    You go to a luncheon event with a client and join a table of eight. There’s an opportunity to engage in conversation during the meal and you and your client, who sits to your right, spend most of the meal catching up. When the speaker begins, you turn your chair so you don’t have to crane your neck to see the speaker. Your back is now to the person on your left. All good, right?

    This may not seem rude to you, but here’s what The-Person-On-The-Left thought when they recounted this scenario to us: “While I understand that bringing a guest requires that one pay attention to that person, I don’t think it should be to the exclusion of others. And, I really found it rude when he turned his back to me.”

    While making sure you talk to more than your guest and saying “do you mind if I turn my back so I can see the speaker” seem like common sense tips, unfortunately we see these poor table manners frequently.

    Oh, and that Person-On-The-Left? He is a very impressive individual who runs a global consulting firm—it probably would have been well worth making that connection.

    –Gayle, Judy and Darcy

  3. I’d agree that the PR lunch is dying, but I’d have blamed reasons 1 and 3 primarily. Also, I agree there are ethical concerns over accepting lunch (or too extravagant of a lunch) for most journalists.

    1. Thanks Zachary for your thoughts. These twin pressures of time/ROI and ethics are fascinating. We don’t have the time or money to spend on things that don’t return immediate benefits – which switches the emphasis of the lunch from being a communal relationship to one of exchange (ie what’s in it for us in having lunch). That in turn increases the ethical concerns about participating, and being seen to participate, in such relationship building.

      I tend to think that if you have a strong ethical core, then having lunch with someone doesn’t affect that – and the person you are having lunch with, shouldn’t expect to be buying influence in this way, especially as your integrity is part of what makes you credible in the first place. But if it cannot be demonstrated that there was a tangible, immediate outcome for the investment in the lunch, then the meeting is not seen as effective.

  4. Interesting article Heather. I totally agree that the PR lunch seems to be dying out fast and I would have to say that your second point is the main reason. Things like this seemed to be frowned upon these days and even if it’s just a colleague giving you the look to say ‘that’s not work; it’s socialising’ no one wants to be thought of in that way.

    1. Thank you for the comment Eilidh. I wonder if this is a permanent change or a result of the economic pressures? Interesting also as the boundaries between work and personal life are increasingly blurred that ‘socialising’ is seen as a negative or that we are only allowed to have fun (or build relationships) in the corporate prescribed way. Ironic also with more focus on creativity and being able to achieve more with less that the benefits of relationships in coming up with ideas that will work (ie rather than pitching media, working with them) and reducing wasted time, is dismissed.

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