Leidly agrees with Burson and adds some about the Watergate impact on public relations..

A few days ago I was invited by the Public Relations Global Network to give a 20’ present/onversation (…so I dubbed it) to a group of some 30 leaders of as many consultancies and as many countries who met in Milano for their by-annual conference each time in a different country.
The topic I chose to address in agreement with Anne Buchanan, leader of the network and Alessandra Malvermi, head of the Italian agency member of the network is:
while you all work hard, this is what research round the world is trying to do
and here is the ppt presentation which visitors might be interested in seeing while-we-all-work-hard.ppt
The core of this is that I attempted to summarize in a nutshell where research around the world appears to be heading to, conceptualizing a new and different public relations practice model, while professionals day in and day out struggle to make sense of their more traditional and consolidated practices.
After the lively q&a session, I sat down at lunch next to Joe Ledlie, a charming and seasoned professional based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Our conversation arrived to an issue which is usually rather trite: how poorly the term public relations is perceived in various organizations in diverse countries who prefer to call the function differently. So what else is new?
I mentioned to him that, in a recent interview -also posted in http://www.prconversations.com/?p=48 (from which this blog stemmed)- Harold Burson had given me the following interpretation:

….I believe the worst thing that has happened to public relations was the change of the
descriptor of what we do from public relations to communications, which many of us passively accepted even though it reinforced the media’s concept of what we do.
Think of this:
° in 1973 some 80% of the Fortune 500 companies included the words “public relations” in the title of their senior-most public relations officer;
°comes 1980, and not more than 15/20% had the words “public relations” in the title of their senior-most public relations officer. the others having changed their to Senior VP Communications or Public Affairs.
What happened…you ask?
My explanation is that the pervasive world wide media accounts in 1973/1974 of the Watergate tapes -in which President Nixon continuously referred to pr every time he suggested to his aides some illegal, or even unethical action to cover up the scandal – served to undermine the reputation of public relations

Joe Ledlie was not aware of this and, being an ex journalist from the Atlanta Journal before entering into public relations, he recalled that period very well and seemed to agree with Harold’s reminiscence.
We then went on to talk of other issues and suddenly he quipped back and said something like:
you know what, Toni? Harold is dead on…now that I think about it I begin to understand why this rotten legacy of the pr nomenklature continues to haunt us today…. It is all a media thing. Journalists who where then in their late teens in college or early twenties learning their job in newsrooms, gobbled and digested Woodward and Bernstein’s ‘All the Presidents Men’ as the quintessential expression of pure journalism, and they must have planted that negative stereotype of public relations in their dna…. This could be a good key for a piece of research for one of your better students?’.

Not a bad idea. The hypothesis could be verified by qualitative interviews with a selected sample of senior journalists from the serious media and -if confirmed- lead to a factual article published, say, in the Columbia Jouornalism Review which would certainly have some impact on the stereotypes of the newer generation…..possibly and hopefully contributing to modifying the nixonite stereotype of pr.
Your opinion?

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6 Replies to “Leidly agrees with Burson and adds some about the Watergate impact on public relations..

  1. Yup, makes a lot of sense… but why should this be not so in other countries who abide to similar principles..?
    there are many associations also in other countries…in italy we have ferpi, but also comunicazione pubblica (public sector), tp (a combination of publicists and advertisers: what they term as communicators), investor relations,internal commmunicators, political consultants, pr agencies etc… yet, although grudgingly, they all seem to accept that ferpi represents the public relations profession. In france I remember there used to be one and somehow I believe there still is. Lucien Matrat, Jacques Coup de Frejac and many others were highl visible international representatives of the profession as my friend Jean Paul Beaudoin is now (by the way, you might wish to read a recent post he accepted that I publish on this blog..). This still does not explain why the french are mostly absent from the international community, even the scholarly one….thak you for your thoughts and do please come again any time you wish…

  2. Toni,

    I have some ideas, and it’s not about English.

    First, there is no general French communications association. The market is very fragmented: there’s the “syndicat” of PR agencies, the internal comms association, the public communicators association, the club of CAC 40 comms directors, and others, but I am not aware of a PR association for individuals.

    Second, it’s cultural: there’s much less of an appreciation for extra-curricular activities here; if you’ve gone through the educational system and are “formé” you don’t require further perfection (this mindset is changing, but slowly).

    Furthermore, the French have a highly compartmentalized view of the world: work time is for work and private time is for the personal life. And most people are very adamant about the separation.

    Finally, I do think there’s a “not invented here” mentality. Like the USA, France thinks it is a fabulous exception from the rules that apply to everyone else. Personally I think that mistaken belief is at the heart of the current crisis making its way through French society and politics. (Which does not mean there are not cultural differences to consider, just that I think people are more alike than we are different.)

    Kristen Sukalac
    President, French Chapter, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)

  3. Thank you Anne-Caroline for this comment. L
    et me ask you this: I have been in this sector now for a very long time and have often had good relationships with many excellent french colleagues, both professionals and scholars. Having said this, I am at awe at how the french public relations community is consistently absent (some exceptions of course) from what I perceive as being the global professional community: that circus of -say- a few hundred (maybe a thousand) individuals from all over the world (less and less… anglosaxoned) who correspond, debate, discuss, elaborate, fight, cry, yell and support each other in attempting (sometime with success, more often with failure) to advance our profession.
    We have no french participation in the Global Alliance for example. In international conferences of scholars the french are conspicuosly absent.
    Why is this?
    Some say it is because the French do not like communities where English is the spoken language de default…mais je n’y crois pas! Peut etre avant…mais maintenant…
    I really hope your visit to this blog will open a new channel of conversation and you are truly very welcome.

  4. Being a European PR expert in Paris, I believe that the perception of PR varies according to the country. In France for instance PR suffers from a “Champagne & petits fours” image. Companies don’t see the added value of PR activities therefore it’s difficult to defend a budget as they are relunctant to pay for a service they don’t really understand. Things are changing but it takes time. To me in anglosaxon countries PR is more valued and integrated in the overall enterprise strategy.

  5. It’s sort of sad when the thought is that if an article is published, it must be in a journalism publication.

    What about The Economist or Fortune or BusinessWeek or The Times? Maybe The Wall Street Journal.

    Harold is sorta right, but he, as is common in America, gives too much creidt to the influenece of his own country. PR eveolved into communications as PR was critized more and more and the PR associations just rolled over and wimpered “kick me.”

    But full marks to Harold for maintaining PR as the descriptor of Burson-Marsteller, which, when I worked there, was the world’s biggest, and by many definitions, best, public relations company, at least for clients with big budgets.


  6. Both Burson’s and Ledlie’s PoV seems very US-centric to me. Though Watergate was pivotal event that has been observed and analyzed attentively in Austria and still is of some significance (especially for people my age), it didn’t have any influence on the image of the pr profession here. Watergate definitely didn’t rub off on PR’s reputation in Austria. The problems we have are home-made, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this would apply to lots of other countries as well. And PR practitioners in Austria usually don’t look like Robert de Niro or Dustin Hoffman. So “Wag the Dog” is nothing more than what it is – a Hollywood movie. Nobody would mistake it for a paraphrase for actual pr (mal)practice in our country.

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