Monday, December 7, 2009

Public Relations Pros: To Get a Seat at the Table, First Get Out of the Highchair

Good PR professionals are always-on, trustworthy representatives of the brand – just like the CEO

Public relations professionals often complain that senior management doesn’t take them – or the discipline – seriously. They say that PR often isn’t involved at a strategic level. This disrespect prevents professionals from doing their jobs effectively in managing the company’s brand image and contributing to business growth.

But PR has to earn that seat at the table. However, some professionals seem to be striving to achieve just the opposite – they sabotage themselves (and the rest of the profession) through unprofessional business behavior. Here’s an example.

This past weekend, I attended a performance in Massachusetts by my favorite comedian Paula Poundstone. Part of Ms. Poundstone’s show involves engaging audience members in an improvised dialog about their jobs. One audience member mentioned that she had retired from a large insurance company. (The retiree mentioned her employer by name; I am specifically NOT mentioning the company by name because I feel it would be unfair.)

Ms. Poundstone then asked the audience if anyone else worked for the company. A young woman in the balcony shouted out that she did. On further questioning, the young woman said “I write corporate propaganda” for the company, working in the “Internal Communications” department. There was some additional bantering about the young woman’s job and what it involved.

I was appalled. The young woman effectively demeaned her employer in public, in order to aggrandize herself. Regardless of whether there is a corporate policy against such behavior – and having worked in another insurance company, I am willing to bet that there is – this person is supposed to be a professional communicator. What was she thinking?

I can answer that: she wasn’t thinking.

Can you picture the CEO of the company doing this? What about the CFO? The chief counsel? The VP of human resources? Or any other senior manager with whom PR wants to “share the table?”

It’s tempting to write off this incident as an isolated incident, and a mistake committed by an inexperienced professional. But I see this behavior far too frequently. For example: there’s the senior VP of a large PR firm who is notoriously blabby about the internals of her clients’ businesses (and her own agency’s business). Her peers joke about it, but I am guessing that the CEOs or chief counsels of her clients wouldn’t joke about it if they knew about it. How can a client trust her – or her agency for that matter?

I would like to think that this behavior is just thoughtlessness or sloppiness. It’s undoubtedly aggravated by our celebrity culture and the let-it-all-hang-out world of social media. But I believe that there’s an attitude at play here: “I want a grown-up responsible job but still want to be able to act like a child.” Companies can’t afford to have people like this staffing their communications departments –let alone giving them a seat at the table with the CEO.

Mature PR professionals consider themselves always-on representatives of their companies or their clients’ businesses, and act accordingly in public and private. Just like the CEO, CFO and so on.

I have met hundreds of mature, trustworthy PR professionals like this – of all ages –and many do have well-deserved seats at the table.

Companies need to be proactive about protecting themselves by hiring trustworthy adult professionals. Search engines and social media can often reveal potential loose cannons.

As for our young friend, she’ll be lucky if her remarks don’t end up on some future CD of Ms. Poundstone’s.

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