Sunday, November 20, 2005

Looking Back: Thinking Forward - Part 4 

This is part 4 of an extended article reviewing early blog entries and what I have learned from them.

Communications Skills

I spent little time on communications skills. Others do that better, and too much is repetition. Good writing starts with good thinking: Organized presentation comes from an organized mind. Laborious discussions of press release writing are just that. But, there are skill sets that practitioners might not consider and are useful, or essential, to have. Among these are reading aloud (2/7/2002, 10/27/2003), a skill needed for prepared speeches; the ability to read balance sheets and income statements (2/27/2003) and experience in disciplines other than PR (1/24/2003). I also wrote practitioners should practice a handicraft (5/5/2003) to remind them that “things are never as easy as we think they are.” Practitioners who set up events and other physical activities know what I am writing about.

What should I be blogging about communications skills? More than I have. I need to observe more closely the talents that new technologies require. I do believe that either PR practitioners learn them or limit their usefulness. PR practitioners are “Swiss Army Knives.” We have many blades, scissors, files and corkscrews that we can bring to communications challenges to resolve them. When we have just one blade, we can hone it to a razor’s edge, but there might not be a need for it.

Limits of PR

The limits of PR begin with a question. Must you have a PR department or PR practitioner in an organization? The answer is no. Many organizations and individuals conduct their own PR. This was a point made early on (9/16/2002). A second and fundamental limitation of the business is that no one quite knows even yet what PR is. As I wrote on (4/2/2003), “I have been responding to questions from visitors since this site (www.online-pr.com) opened in 1997… What is the most common question I get? ‘What is Public Relations?’” I returned to the topic on (6/13/2003) with the following comment, “I used to get upset that no one understands our business. Even my father and mother never caught on. I would explain my day to them, and they would give me the vague response, ‘That's nice.’ I would overhear them tell others that I worked in advertising.”

I cited in the blog examples of PR that failed, such as the publicity campaign for the Segway two-wheeled transporter (4/8/2003, 10/02/2003). I noted that public relations alone cannot save brand names (9/29/2003). I highlighted examples of where people will not listen to what one has to say no matter how strongly one says it and even if it is in their best interests. This was the topic of a (10/29/2003) entry, “I am reminded of this because brush fires in California have destroyed more than 1,100 homes and more than 14 lives. These are people who refused to listen. For decades, authorities have advised against building homes in or near dense brush in Southern California mountains. People ignored the advice and built anyway.”

Why pay attention to the limits of PR? There is an unhealthy tendency to claim too much for PR, just as there is for other disciplines. Part of the PR’s zealousness in justifying itself comes from a feeling that PR is ignored – and it is. PR is bypassed often in favor of a Chief Marketing Officer, General Counsel or investment banker.

Here I wrote originally the following sentence:

I believe I should continue to examine PR’s limits, but with a deeper focus on the relationships between communications, economics and organizations.

This earned a well-deserved rebuke from Mr. Shinbach:

I think this is akin to having a mission statement “I will continue to shout into the wind.” Rather, I think you should consider taking a couple of steps back and not examine PR’s limits but examine just what PR is. Define it. Nobody else is, at least in relevant terms (puff words like “relationships” are OK for dating sites and marriage counselors but not something that claims to be somehow related to business). Let’s face it, PR is disparaged as spin, press relations and just-plain-bullshit (see the former FEMA director’s e-mails to & from his PR person during the Katrina disaster. She advised him on his clothing, not his message… I think your time would be well spent exploring a definition of PR that would be acceptable and relevant to important people like CEOs, journalists and your parents. In other words, rather than examining a negative (i.e., PR’s limitations), why not examine a positive (i.e., what is PR?)?

Point taken.


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