Thursday, September 03, 2009

It's About Time

alarm clock graphic There has always been a perception among many that public relations professionals are tied to the media … that they have, in effect, undue influence. While it’s true that many reporters and editors accept the news angles we craft, use us to reach corporate leadership for key stories and listen to our advocacy on behalf of our clients when there’s controversy, the best journalists evaluate our input and objectively formulate their final product.

The reality is that our business is a science. We understand a journalist’s need for content that builds readership, ratings or viewers and that professional presentations are standard fare. We support journalists’ efforts with research, information and strategic approaches. But that’s just part of our toolkit. Despite the fact that our profession has grown into a significant marketing discipline availing itself of multiple techniques — well beyond just traditional media relations — the aforementioned perception persists.

Here is just one example of it. During my career, most of the times when a public relations executive is pitched to the major media for a potential profile or as a columnist or commentator, editors responded, “We don’t profile PR executives or use them as commentators unless the story is about public relations.” I have never received a straight answer as to why, but the obvious implication is conflict-of-interest. We are always compromised by our clients’ positions, the mainstream media believes, and featuring a PR executive may appear as favor-trading.

That is why the headline in Friday’s New York Times, “Wall St. Journal Gives an Ethics Green Light to a P.R. Executive’s Column,” hit with such a bang! It was instant recognition by our resistant “partner” that our business has arrived as a professional service with the same standing as law, architecture, accounting or any other.

Some journalists disapproved of the Wall Street Journal’s hiring Mark Penn, president of global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, to write a column called “Microtrends.” WSJ deputy managing editor, Alan Murray, responded that “we have increased our number of guest contributors [and] we have very strict conflict-of-interest agreements with each of them.” Further, he noted, “I can’t imagine any Wall Street Journal reporter has any problem blowing off any Burson-Marsteller call [on a story pitch that has no potential].”

Hopefully, this move will put to bed the notion that PR folks have editors in the palms of their hands — or vice-versa.

In this blog-dominated world, where anyone can be a publisher, there is as much merit in a public relations executive writing for the Wall Street Journal as writing a blog. Admittedly, the very fact that he will have the imprimatur of the Wall Street Journal on his column could indeed be an attraction to a potential client. But there is an absolute duty to be transparent: if one is writing about a client or a position that will benefit a client that is paying for your services, then it should be so stated. To violate your ethical obligations and side-step transparency and full disclosure today is to set yourself up for a reputational crisis of truly epic proportions.

Technorati Tags: pr professional, journalist, Wall St. Journal Gives Ethics Green Light to a P.R. Executive's Column, Mark Penn, Burson-Marsteller, microtrends

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