PR News Advisory Board Roundtable: Reputation Issues Define PR in 2011; Privacy Problems in 2012?

PR is always a main driver of a given year’s top stories, but it seems as if that was even more true in 2011. From the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the saga of Charlie Sheen, to the Royal Wedding and the scandals at both Penn State and Syracuse University, PR has been front and center.

But those were the “public” stories of public relations. As members of the PR News Advisory Board recalled 2011 events and offered up important trends to look for in 2012, a concern was that people—both in business and the general public—aren’t really aware of all that PR entails. But, do they really have to know? That’s just one topic tackled by five of our Advisory Board members: Mike Herman, CEO of Communication Sciences International; Laura Kane, VP of corporate communications at Aflac; Michael McDougall, managing partner at McDougall Travers Collins; Mike Paul (“The Reputation Doctor”), president of MGP & Associates PR; and Helene Solomon, CEO of Solomon McCown & Co.

PR News: How did PR do in terms of its own reputation in 2011? When did PR shine, and in what instances did it lose some of its luster?

Helene Solomon
CEO, Solomon
McCown & Co.

Helene Solomon: Tops on my list was around 9/11 and many different story threads around the anniversary, and Steve Jobs—the management of his illness and his passing—and the whole packaging around the release of the biography by Walter Isaacson, all with the stock price unaffected. Then I’d add the farewells of Oprah and Regis, and the Royal Wedding. There were PR 101’s in all of them. The bad story: when Burson-Marsteller was hired by Facebook to attack Google— that was a low moment for the industry.


Mike Herman CEO, Communication Sciences International

Mike Herman: Overall, without naming any particular story, I was encouraged this year by the conversation around PR and what it is, what it can do and what it’s doing for business in a challenging economy. There continued to be stories about PR and how it’s being used effectively—and sometimes ineffectively. We seem to be more in the conversation than advertising or marketing, and that’s good. I also think there has been some introspection in how we position ourselves, and how we can take advantage of this opportunity. For the first time in a long time, it wasn’t all about spin. It was PR being part of a business conversation.


Mike Paul
President, MGP &
Associates PR

Mike Paul: I often talk to the people outside PR, and don’t spend a lot of time talking to peers, because I think it’s important for us to try to get others who don’t understand who we are to know about what we do. All of those stories Helene talked about were great stories. We could just say that PR is involved with 100% of stories in the news and leave it at that. Problem is, we don’t do a good job breaking PR down for the layman.

Herman: One problem is, too often we’re not involved. Or, if we are, we’re not very effective—like with this month’s Lowe’s story [ Editor’s note: Lowe’s decision to pull its advertising from All-American Muslim on TLC.]. There’s an effort going on now with PRSA to update PR’s definition and make more clear our involvement in change management and in building relationships for organizations. So there are efforts being made.

Paul: Those efforts have been going on for years. It’s nothing new. Most people think we do media relations for a living, or do spin—changing things that are uncomfortable. The public doesn’t know we’re involved with crafting messages behind those big stories, like the 9/11 anniversary and Oprah’s last show.

Michael McDougall
Managing Partner,
McDougall Travers Collins

Michael McDougall: I would question if we really need to talk about it. Do we need to have the man on the street understand what we do in the industry? We might be more emotionally attached to industry or profession than we need to be.

Paul: People in all different professions influence others. I think that’s a big part of our job. The more people we understand what we do, the better.

Solomon: Good point. On the corporate side, we’ve seen an increased awareness of and desire for strategic counsel work as opposed to just work that leads to an end result. I think some of the need for strategic counsel and planning has been informed by the big stories and horrible crisis stories like Penn State and others. We see a renewed urgency in counseling and strategy part of the business. It pains me to say this, however: In some organizations PR is still a mystery. There continues to be a need for education about the benefits of PR and having a seat at the table.

PR News: Given that we’re still fighting our way out of a bad economy, how did PR as a business fare in 2011?

Paul: We specialize in crisis and reputation management, and business has been booming. I spend a lot of time through TV and other media educating people in what we do as an agency, which has helped the brand grow worldwide. So on the crisis side, it’s really taken off, but I know a lot of my fellow professionals have been hurting quite badly.

Laura Kane
VP, Corporate Communications, Aflac

Laura Kane: Taking into account that the European economic troubles and the Japan earthquake and tsunami affected us at Aflac, from the corporate perspective, I think that all the talk in the media about how these crises were handled from a PR perspective made 2011 a good year for us. People have realized where PR really shines is when you have a crisis, and then they begin to understand what we do.

McDougall: From the corporate perspective, when I was at Bausch + Lomb we had four years’ running of budget increases for communications. In terms of getting a new agency up and running, I can’t complain for being two months in. If we were solely focused on upstate New York and the southern Ontario region [ Editor’s note: McDougall Travers Collins is based in Rochester, NY], it could be difficult. We already have overseas clients, and clients throughout the Southeast and the Midwest.

PR News: Speaking of resources, does PR continue to be challenged by folding and consolidated media organizations, or has this stabilized?

McDougall: Well, it’s not a challenge, it’s an opportunity. I had a meeting yesterday where an executive editor told me, “We need more content. If you give it to us, we’ll take it.” With smaller editorial staffs there’s a tighter relationship between communications pros and the media. It opens all sorts of doors in getting our messages out.

Kane: You have to take the shrinking media into consideration. That’s why we’ve looked into what’s going on in the digital world. Two years ago I wasn’t doing blogger relations, but as we saw with Gilbert Gottfried’s tweets [after the Japan earthquake], things happen at such a fast speed. Traditional media relations is still important, but we’re definitely strengthening blogger, social and digital relations.

Paul: There have been a lot of cutbacks in traditional media, so having strong relationships with the media is more important than ever. Staffs are changing so quickly, and moving on to other positions. I was just visiting Fox News, and someone who I thought was a full-time Fox producer [actually] works for three hours as a freelancer there—with no benefits—in the afternoon and holds down a night job. I see a lot of this. Cuts are still happening in radio, print and TV at a high rate. That’s why it’s important to go through your Rolodex and make sure it’s up to date.

PR News: Now that social media is firmly embedded into PR programs, how has it impacted the field?

Kane: It’s been good for us. In our search for the voice of the Aflac duck, we had 12,500 online submissions, ranging in age from 8 to 94. We were surprised by that range online. That said, we use social media to amplify messages. I wouldn’t want to rely on it solely, since social media gets a lot of information from traditional media. But it’s great to amplify a message that you might have, particularly if there’s not a lot of news value there.

Paul: From crisis perspective it’s important. Sometimes to sell the value of social media, it’s helpful to lead with the negative when convincing leadership that you need to be monitoring and using Facebook Twitter and other platforms. Make the case by going through negative stories in the news of companies that have made big mistakes in not understanding the social media space. Put the fear of God in them a bit. Then work backwards and talk about the positive side of it.

PR News:Where are we measurement and the ability to prove PR’s value?

McDougall: I think we can measure. It’s a question of do we want to. A lot of us are afraid to wade in and figure out if what we’re doing is effective. We have to step up and say that some of the things we do are not that effective. We tend to hide behind “we can’t measure.”

Kane: We’ve struggled with measurement—but we have gotten away from impressions. We’re now testing for reputation, and that’s what we’re judged on. Are people feeling good about Aflac? Are they aware of the good things that we do? This is still new for us, and it can be frustrating because it depends on the news cycle, but I can’t argue about having to do it because my friends in marketing have had to do this for years.

PR News: Name the trends you think will be important in 2012.

McDougall: Privacy issues. We have more and more access to data about our audiences. In 2012 and into 2013 we’ll see tools introduced that allow us an even better snapshot of who our audiences are, and we’ll be embroiled in a privacy debate.

Kane: At Aflac, we’re continuing to keep our eye on social media. We’re seeing Facebook fade. We’re now looking at Twitter and Google+, which hasn’t done much so far. We’re determining what the next big thing is. From a media perspective, journalists will still be stretched, but we’re looking at other ways to get our stories out, like through Quora.

Solomon: We’re looking at more ways to have our client experts be relevant and to be creating more content to be used across channels. We’re huge proponents of Twitter. It’s so useful for thought leadership and issues, but I’m curious as to where Twitter will be next year. On the privacy side, transparency will be important.

On the crisis side, as we’ve seen at Penn State, people who feel they’ve been victimized now have many options to bring their message to the world, so reputation management will continue to be critical.

Paul: Three trends—transparency, accountability and the perp walk. The election year will impact all sectors in society. Politicians will be getting caught for a variety of transgressions because of rivals who have an incentive to out them.

There will be a struggle with accountability and transparency. We have the old guard sitting on corporate boards who think that old rules may still apply—why can’t we hide things, why can’t we have them prove it? And we’ll see the continued fight of the court of law versus the court of public opinion. We’re seeing that in Penn State and Syracuse cases.

The fight between attorneys and senior PR counselors will continue. PR professionals will have more opportunities, because as we have these debates, organizations will see that the court of law is not everything.

Herman: Two things. First, there will be a greater emphasis and understanding of our role as change managers. Organizations are being overrun with changes in how they do business, and people will look to PR and how we can communicate those changes. And 2012 will be a big year of discussions on ethics, particularly within digital and social media. PRN


Mike Herman,; Laura Kane,; Michael McDougall,; Mike Paul,; Helene Solomon,