Everything Old Is Still New

June 15, 2011       Ann Andrews Morris      

The practice of public relations has come a long way in its 111 year history. And while the modes of communication have changed radically, PR’s core values have stayed the same. Unfortunately, it is still an industry that’s largely misunderstood.

The first PR firm, the Publicity Bureau, was founded in Boston in 1900. Back then the common term for what is now public relations was propaganda — a term that the industry has yet to shake. The third PR firm was Parker & Lee. Its co-founder Mr. Ivy Lee was arguably the father of modern PR. His successes with softening the image of John D. Rockefeller and helping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the American Red Cross during World War I set the bar for those who would follow.

In addition for being credited with creating the modern press release, in 1906, Lee wrote “The Declaration of Principles,” which he sent to all the newspapers. Upon reflection, they are the precursors to today’s ethical guidelines set by the Public Relations Society of America. Indeed, the principles (excerpts below) could be helpful to some modern day PR practitioners. (See recent stories about a large PR firm being hired to defame a competitor of its client.)

• This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news.

• Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact.

• In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.

• Corporations and public institutions give out much information in which the news point is lost to view. Nevertheless, it is quite as important to the public to have this news as it is to the establishments themselves to give it currency.

• I send out only matter every detail of which I am willing to assist any editor in verifying for himself. I am always at your service for the purpose of enabling you to obtain more complete information concerning any of the subjects brought forward in my copy.

Ironically, Lee himself is alleged to have had a hard time following his own guidelines toward the end of his life. But 105 years later, the majority of PR people still follow these tenets and are ethical and resourceful. But as with any group, a few bad apples can spoil the reputations of many. On the heels of the British Petroleum oil spill and other situations in which PR was not properly utilized, a 2010 Gallup public opinion poll found that the PR industry (albeit linked to the advertising industry) ranked lower in positive ratings than the automobile and telephone industries. PR barely did better than the airlines and lawyers.

One might argue that the problem isn’t with PR practitioners but with leadership that doesn’t listen to smart counsel. Either way, the public isn’t trusting of PR. That’s a pity because what’s at the heart of public relations is to give the public a better understanding of a particular organization or issue.

So now that the market is crowded — a 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, bloggers — and people do not think highly of PR folks, what’s the best thing to do? Take the high road, follow the guidelines set forth by Ivy Lee in 1906, and:

• Create a list of clients for whom you will and will not work. Stick to that list.

• Serve clients with integrity and neutrality.

• Always tell the truth.

• Be prepared to walk away if an organization rejects your counsel and you’re asked to lie. The old adage is true, the cover-up is almost always worse than the mistake.

• Protect your organization’s interests but be transparent and open, especially when in crisis.

• Work cooperatively with all key stakeholders to create a public relations strategy that meshes with and drives the organization’s mission, vision and goals. Any target audience should see and hear the same things about the organization, no matter what the platform.

• Don’t follow the next, bright shiny object just because it’s new. Stay abreast of developments, but only leverage the newest tactics if they help drive your strategic plan and will resonate with your target audience.

• Stick to the strategy. Stick to the strategy. Stick to the strategy, unless along the way the strategy stops working. Realign accordingly, then stick to the strategy. NPT

Ann Andrews Morris is vice president for communications and outreach at World Food Program USA in Washington, D.C. Her email is ann@andmorecommunications.com