Friday, February 04, 2005

PR is Necessary

I know there will be plenty of folks who are a lot smarter than I who will eloquently state our necessary role in business or wax philosophical in our pro-PR campaign today. I'd rather talk about the emotional side because for me, public relations is a personal interaction.

And one of the reasons I feel so strongly about how public relations is perceived is due to young PR people like Helon, a 20 yr-old public relations major at Auburn University. On her blog she recently posted, "Whenever anyone asks what my major is and I tell them Public Relations they make the comment, 'so you want to cover up scandals and promote false images.'”

Now that just breaks my heart.

But Helon is absolutely correct when she says that most people "don’t have the slightest idea what PR practicioners do. All they have to go on is what they see in the media." And if the media has been portraying us poorly, whose fault is that?

Ours, of course.

Hopefully, in some small way, this is the beginning of a change in perception. And it begins with me and you and every other PR professional.

For me, public relations is personal because I grew up in a family of journalists. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my father was the reporter that shot the film of Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald back in 1963. When I was a teenager my parents published five weekly newspapers here in Central Texas. So I grew up trying to get my parents attention while they were always on deadline. Somehow, instead of that turning into a neurosis, my childhood pain has grown in a valuable skill. Now media relations has become a visceral thrill ride and I'm addicted to the thump-thumping adrenal pump I get every time a reporter returns my call.

And public relations is personal for me because I've felt its power to affect other people's lives. My proudest moment in PR happened when I once helped a reporter friend whose brother had pancreatic cancer. The only thing that could save him, the doctors said, was this new Erbitux drug. But the clinical use trials halted during the Sam Waksal and Martha Stewart scandal. My friend was upset because she couldn't get anyone in the media to listen to her. "And I'm a reporter!" she said.

So I offered to help. She had been going after all the business reporters she knew. So I went after the health beat because I knew the biz beat just wanted Martha, Martha, Martha. I wrote a pitch about how the real scandal in all this was that the scandal surrounding Martha and Sam was keeping very sick people from their last hope. This pitch to a reporter I'd never met at the WSJ, landed our story on the front page. My friend's brother face became one of those dot matrix portraits in the Journal and Sam Waksal and his parent company re-opened the compassionate use trials that very day.

At the time I was commuting 2 hours each way from San Francisco down to San Jose. Out the door at 5:30 am, home by 9:30. I was completely exhausted all the time. But when my friend needed help, I came alive again. Helping someone, making a difference--that's what PR is all
about to me. Even when I'm flacking something as dry as RFID tags or CRM software, I try to always remember that what I'm doing will affect people's lives.

I try to keep it personal and true to me and for the most part that's kept me out of trouble. For the most part, that is. When I have screwed up I came forward immediately and owned up to what I did.

So, Helon, I hope viewing public relations as a personal interaction will help when you face criticism. And I personally hope that what you've witnessed from the PR profession over the last few weeks hasn't scared you into changing your major. I hope you stick with us.

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