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Gini Dietrich

The Communication Industry Has a Perception Issue

By: Gini Dietrich | June 21, 2011 | 
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The communication industry has a perception issue. Danny Brown disagrees with me. Sort of.

He thinks communication professionals have a perception issue; that there are bad eggs in our profession, just like every other industry. But that the entire industry isn’t the problem because, well, an industry, by definition, is either a collection of businesses or the building of an idea around something or someone.

I agree an industry isn’t a living, breathing person (as he puts it), but the industry does rank at the bottom of professions, with used car salesmen and lawyers. While we’re not lucky enough to have jokes told about us like the legal industry, it’s an issue, none-the-less.

The problem, you see, is that we don’t do our own PR. We are so busy doing PR for our employers or our clients that we forget about ourselves. That whole shoemaker’s children have no shoes phenomenon.

So, instead, those who don’t understand what we do create the perception of our brand. The most tangible thing we do is media relations because, when a story runs, you can hold it, see it, feel it, touch it. Because of that, we’re seen as flacks, spin doctors, snakeoil salesmen, and even liars. Anything to get a good story, right?

Wrong.

Last week, while in Baltimore, I was running late for dinner because I was commenting to Davina Brewer on a blog post by Jayme Soulati about pushing the edge of the envelope, which got me all fired up. (Valeria Maltoni and Adam Singer made fun of me, “Someone was wrong on the Internet and you are late so you could correct them?”as they high-fived one another for being so clever.)

You see, there are many conversations happening about the ROI of keeping the books, the ROI of engagement and sentiment, the ROI of taking out the trash. All of these things have to happen to keep a business running. They are the cost of doing business.

Typically, PR is seen as a cost of doing business. A cost that can be deleted from the P&L as soon as times get tough.

Let’s Make Ourselves Some Shoes

The time is ripe for us to begin to make change; for us to begin to change that perception. It’s time for us to shift the mindset that PR is an expense and help business leaders understand we are an investment.

With digital marketing and communication, we have the opportunity to measure our results. To show exactly how our efforts are translating to actual dollars and cents (if you don’t know how, Adam Boatsman wrote a phenomenal post yesterday on how to get started).

In order to do that, though, we must get out of our comfort boxes and learn some new skills: Some skills most marketers already have.

Do you understand how your company makes money? Do you understand how leads are generated and how they’re converted? Do you have a relationship with anyone in sales? In accounting? Are you reviewing your website and/or blog analytics? Are you comparing your analytics to the past? Do you have conversion goals, based on your communication efforts?

If you answered yes to all of these, congratulations! You’re likely already proving your worth.

But, if you answered no to any one of these, you have some work to do. In the next 60 days, you need to be able to answer yes to all of these questions.

Do Your Own PR

Once you’re there, you can begin to think about how to generate leads that can be converted to sales. For instance, create unique URLs that drive solely to the communication efforts. Or create a QR code for your packaging that drives customers and prospects to a web property (website, blog, Facebook), where they can buy product, get a mobile coupon, or read a recent blog post. Develop digital coupons with a code for each discipline: Communication, advertising, marketing, sales, etc. Have a call-to-action in your content, such as an eBook download or registration to a webinar.

Track these efforts in your analytics. Work with your friends in sales, marketing, and accounting to develop an executive dashboard. And report your results either to your executive team or to your client’s executive team. Do your own PR.

If we all begin to think like business owners, the perception of our industry will change. When the perception changes, we’ll be able to join the conversation as an investment; something the business can’t live without.

But it’s imperative we all think this way. That we all report this way. That we all learn these new skills. If we don’t, the perception will remain and those of us who do good work will continue to blame the perception issue on the bad eggs of our industry.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

112 comments
NancyM.
NancyM.

I like what you say about PR professionals not doing their own PR. Come to think of it, this is VERY true. The image of the whole PR industry needs some serious PR work. And PR is definitely an investment for businesses, not an expense.

2twitme
2twitme

To put it simply: You define yourself, not let others. @PR

Leon
Leon

G'Day Gini,

Thanks for a really useful post. Here's acouple of general comments.

!. perception is the only reality. As my boss used to tell me decades ago when I was a bright-eyed and bushy tailed young Training Officer, "the opinions that people hold are facts to them."

2. if you can't measure it, don't teach it. I'd like to claim that, but it's been said by many others in many ways too.

But just imagine Gini......If all web marketers stood or fell by that little power-packed dictum, we'd probably have up to 75% of stuff on the web disappear overnight. But how good would the remaining 25% be?

Change a few perceptions too.......!

Make sure and all that

Regards

Leon

coffeewithjulie
coffeewithjulie

I'm afraid I won't be reading the 102 comments before me, so please forgive me for that first in case I'm repeating someone else's point ....

Your title and intro use the term "communications industry" and "communications professionals" in relation to this perception issue. But as someone who has been working in "corporate communications" for almost 20 years now, I can't say that I agree. Perhaps "PR" has an image problem, but corporate communications? Not so much. We are the folks ghost writing executive speeches, drafting annual reports and issuing news releases. We're largely considered a less glamorous profession, and we don't tend to get the same "spin doctor" association tied to us. If you scan through the articles coming out from our professional association, IABC International, you won't find any discussion of this issue. We're generally obsessed with how we can measure our value in relation to the corporate bottom line.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

In my defense I was playing devil's advocate .. or at least, raising some of those objections as per the 'perception' problem, these are questions we have to be able to answer. Plus it got me mentioned in a SS post, so I should be wrong more often. ;-)

Liked a lot of the comments here on many sides of the issue, yet as I'm like @wabbitoid and work with SMBs, some of this is a little above my paygrade so to speak. That said, I also don't like the 'flack' and 'spin' titles, the 'advertising and sales' comparisons... want to jokingly blame Hollywood but that's not going to help. The only solutions I can offer: this. Keep doing this, reading and sharing different posts and articles on all sides of the issues; per @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing keep pushing for education, raising the level of debate. I'd like to be pie-in-the-sky and say the cream will rise, the crap will fall.. but alas, suspect otherwise. What else can I do? Strive to be better, always. FWIW.

jim_knutsen
jim_knutsen

Great (and important) conversation. Thanks for getting it going, Gini.

I think we have to start by admitting that ours is an industry that accommodates bad people and rewards bad behavior. The world is full of Enrons, and so it is also full of flacks willing to make a pretty good buck spinning those companies' stories.

What we need is a community exactly like the one you're building here at Spin Sucks. A group that stands in stark contrast to the ambulance chasers in our field. We should acknowledge their existence and inevitability, and then demonstrate how *we* are committed to the ethical practice of our profession.

CommunicateGood
CommunicateGood

Great post GIni. I get very frustrated when people disparage the PR industry (particularly when it comes from within the industry). I wrote a blog post on this very topic last year called "Don’t call me a “flak”: http://bit.ly/78Fw3.

MandyGambrelVavrinak
MandyGambrelVavrinak

Gini, as someone who didn't "study PR" in college (my proof I'm teachable is a Graphic Design degree) and came to the industry by way of marcomm and advertising... both you and @Danny Brown are right. The people poorly practicing PR over the years have indeed created an industry perception problem. I tend to think more holistically about image, brand, perception for clients than some "PR people" because that's my background... it encompasses more than the the story and is measured by increases in the bottom line over time. (That's simplifying, but you get what I'm saying, I know :)

I think we (as a group of practitioners) need to do a better job of doing our own PR... AND I think we, as an industry, need to focus on internal development and training... so we grow better PR people, who will in turn populate a better PR industry, giving us all more positive stuff to use to do our own PR. That makes sense, right? It did when I wrote it...

profkrg
profkrg

I think you're on to something here. I've found that media agencies are some of the worst at communication. Many times they need marketing and pr campaigns more than their clients. It seems quite possible that you and Dan both are correct. There is an internal and an external problem in our industry. Now that we've identified it, let's think strategically and fix it!

Doug_Davidoff
Doug_Davidoff

Gini,

Great post (as always). I have some thoughts - primarily that the situation the PR/Communication industry finds itself may not be as unique as you think it is. I have this exact conversation with HR people, IT people, finance people - hell I even have with salespeople (and you'd think the ROI on them would be obvious).

I think the issue is more fundamental. There is a chasm (and unfortunately the chasm appears to be getting larger) between the strategic/vision center of the business and the operational silos. As PR, IT, Finance, Marketing, etc. people gain more and more expertise about their discipline, they seem to move further and further away from connecting the dots to the business needs.

In today's drought companies have been forced to ask very difficult questions and are moving away from activity based judgments (how many stories ran) to, well, does this activity really make a difference judgments. If you can't connect the dots to making a difference you are going to be relegated to obscurity.

Unfortunately, numbers alone won't bridge the gap (which is why lots of CEOs don't "get" digital). The only thing that will is business savvy (or business acumen). Communications people need to become businesspeople, having business conversations. When they do that the chasm can be bridged and, suddenly, things make sense.

Thanks for the forum to share,

Doug

@Quartz164
@Quartz164

With regards to education, honestly the only thing a bachelors degree means is YOU'RE TEACHABLE. That's it and that's all. Your real education begins on the job. Every agency, company and/or business defines PR, communications, accounting, sales, etc. differently. Each has it's own definition, goals and expectations. There's no course or degree that's going to turn out better PR people. Our industry is no different than business, legal, health, agriculture or anything else, there are good people and bad ones. Let your own reputation represent you and your business, not the reputation of others.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR

In a perfect world, Gini, all of PR can be all of what you suggest above and do all those wonderful things. Alas, it ain't gonna happen. I'm going to suggest that the crux of the issue boils down to one item -- education.

For those business owners burned at the stake by some douche (had to use that once), the emotion around that feeling NEVER goes away. How many clients have you had that were burned by a nasty reporter who attacked and then printed something someone didn't say? (And, PR gets all the blame; thanks media friends who complain all over us.)

So, I suggest we have two serious goals -- educate those who hire PR what we offer from strategic counselor to publicity hound pitch maven and all in between; challenge ourselves to be all we can be using your list as a guide rule.

I could go on and on but I'll save it for a guest post one of these days. Dang, I get so upset when we're piddled on. @Dannybrown this is a people issue because people in this field must re-invent. There's no one to teach us; you have to do it yourself; do you wanna? Or lie there and be dormant and whine about how life is unfair?

Marcus_Sheridan
Marcus_Sheridan

OK, let me just say Mrs. Deitrich that if you're ever in Md/Va/Dc area again, and you do not let me know, the Lion's wrath will be unleashed upon your head. ;-)

There, I feel better now ;)

RickRice
RickRice

Gini -

I think both you and @Danny Brown are making points that must be made. You're just holding more people's feet closer to the fire and that's a good thing. I'll avoid the semantics and just say the PR business needs some serious changes. Whether we're talking about marketing or corporate PR I think 'we' have always avoided strict measurement against real business objectives. The metrics you're talking about are what we need to, as you said, go from being a cost to an investment.

You've already talked about the needed marketing PR metrics. On the corporate PR side, where what we're selling are ideas and concepts, we need to learn to use common tools like opinion polls to see where we start and how we move the needle instead of making up squishy objectives. On both sides of the business we need to think about changing the business model at agencies so we can get away from selling hours (a cost) to being compensated for results (an investment).

I'd say that would also be the way to stop the endless executive committee meetings at the large firms I've endured where everyone just complains about being a low margin business. We get low margins because we insist on being paid for the efforts and often resist being rewarded for the results.

Just as importantly, 'we' need to look at better education and training for the people in this business. That has to go well beyond polishing writing skills and how to build relationships with the media. PR people need to understand things like business math, and, as you said, what it takes to get the job done in every part of an organization. How do you recruit? How do get a permit for plant? How do you actually close a sale. You can't craft and pitch a story if you don't understand why you're doing it and what it takes to help others get their job done. I gather that's part of what you're doing with Spin Sucks Pro and I'm looking forward to hearing how that works.

Admitting we have a problem is the first step in fixing it. I'm in PR and 'we' have a problem. Excuses don't cut it. Yes, people make the mistakes, but it is the industry that needs to fix it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Leon I love #2, Leon! You're right, we might have a good percentage fall off, but what's remaining is of huge value. I think it's worth it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@coffeewithjulie Perhaps the difference is that I come from an agency background, not internal. But the perception issue is rampant and I know a lot of corp comm people agree with me. If you're issuing news releases and ghost writing speeches, the mass audience thinks you're a spin doctor... messaging your way out of trouble for your CEO.

GlennFerrell
GlennFerrell

@spinsucks No problem. It gave a chance to read a great post. That Glenn Ferrell is a sharp guy. I've run across his stuff before. :-)

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@3HatsComm Oh I don't think you're wrong and I absolutely think we should be playing devil's advocate. I almost linked to the ROI of your mom so you wouldn't think I was disagreeing with you in this post, but I couldn't make it fit with the idea that it was a cost of doing business.

I actually believe the cream will rise and, through education (consistent education), we'll begin to see the perception change. During our career lifetime. I really believe it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jim_knutsen What a nice compliment - thank you!

You're right...and it's hard to stand out when you have global PR firms doing things such as whisper campaigns for the likes of Facebook. But we will prevail!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@MandyGambrelVavrinak LOL! It definitely makes sense. And I agree on the professional development end of it (cough, Spin Sucks Pro, cough). We don't get enough of it. It's not required. And there isn't a real measure of how we're learning/advancing our knowledge. Also, I have an English degree. Perhaps that's the key to being teachable in PR...not having a PR degree?? :)

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@profkrg Absolutely we should think strategically and fix it! I have lots of plans to help make that happen. You in??

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Doug_Davidoff Hi Doug! Thanks for stopping by! You and I are in COMPLETE agreement about the chasm and how deep it's getting. Just this morning, I was talking with our development team about how everyone works in their silos and the goal of our content is to underline the importance of working as a hub with the other disciplines. And you and I have always agreed that PR pros need to become business people. Unfortunately that doesn't happen unless you run a business or run a P&L. It needs to change so it's not limited to those two sets.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@@Quartz164 I agree you should let your own reputation represent you, and that's how I've built my own career. But I also think something needs to be done about educating our peers on how to translate their expertise into something that shows it's meaningful for the business. Until then, we'll keep fighting the, "Oh you're a spin doctor" comments at networking events.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing I don't agree that it's not going to happen. It may take many, many years, but the vision of Spin Sucks Pro is to do just that: Educate. Educate those who hire PR and educate those who practice the discipline. There are many of us who are willing to take the lead...I hope the platform we're building will make it accessible.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@RickRice God bless you for bringing up the billable hour issue. The industry never has figured out the right way to bill. I hear things such as, "If we're paid for results, then how do we define a campaign that took 15 minutes to come up with, but is used for 10 years?" Or, "If I get paid for story placements, why don't I just put it on the wire and collect my check?"

That's why I think there absolutely has to be some accountability in how we measure our efforts and, like you said, understanding things like business math.

Thanks for standing with me and admitting we have a problem!

ElissaFreeman
ElissaFreeman

@RickRice @Danny Brown This comment hits the nail on the head for me. As influencers on the inside - and closest to the actualy decision-makers, eg CEOs/SVPs, corporate-side PR pros need a more well-rounded plan and business skill set. Even after 20+ years as a PR pro, it's a cold harsh reality to know that not having that marketing education rigour - which includes accounting - can serve as an Achilles' heel.

We need to do even more than learn how to sell ourselves. We need to re-define from the ground up. Better well-rounded PR curriculum for starters, better defined analytics that senior management can understand, our own reputation 'P&:L'; one that shows the ROI of what happens when a compnay embarks on positive engagement strategies and the financial hit a company takes when they don't.

coffeewithjulie
coffeewithjulie

@ginidietrich @coffeewithjulie Yes, maybe it's a perception difference between the work of an external agency versus that of internal employees. Or maybe it's because I don't (and most of our region doesn't) work for high-profile companies since we have a great deal of government and B2B work here. Or maybe I'm just in denial about being a spin doctor. ;)

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR

And, I'll say it publicly and I know you know it privately...whatever you need, I'm here to help. Not asking for anything except to help invest in our profession's future. @ginidietrich

RickRice
RickRice

@ginidietrich The other side of the billable hour is, how do we get paid for being able to solve a problem in an hour because of expertise and experience when other people might need days or weeks to get it done? It just leaves too much on the table.

The current system also leaves you with the issue of finding time to educate people. Our highest profits come from the lower salaried people's billable hours forcing managers to focus on maximum utilization instead of training and building for the future. I do NOT miss having that argument with management every month.

RickRice
RickRice

@MandyGambrelVavrinak @ginidietrich Absolutely none taken. I know plenty of idiots with PR degrees. I do, however, particularly enjoy the irony that mine is a BS from BU... Even they stopped offering it the year after I graduated back in the ice age. You gotta smile!

RickRice
RickRice

@ElissaFreeman @ginidietrich That's a great approach. There aren't many clients out there that show that kind of understanding. Good for you and your agencies.

ElissaFreeman
ElissaFreeman

@RickRice @ginidietrich Being on the client side, I hired my agencies based on their speed of expertise esp where issues management is concerned. But since we understand how we best work with one another, our budget (which we agreed upon together) reflects that reality. While juniors may do media monitoring, call reports etc, they cannot do the real heavy lifting; for that I need top-level expertise.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@RickRice Totally agree with you. It's something we struggle with here...mostly because there isn't an industry standard.

Trackbacks

  1. […] G. made an insightful comment in a discussion on Spin Sucks about how his career has always included developing skills that were applicable to more than one […]

  2. […] to answer in five parts. This week’s question was inspired by Gini Dietrich’s blog post, The Communication Industry Has a Perception Issue. Leading to my […]

  3. […] Danny Brown rebutted Michael’s over-generalization. Gini Dietrich responded that, regardless of any generalization, the communication industry really does have a “perception issue.” […]

  4. […] solution to this problem, Gini Dietrich of PR blog Spin Sucks has proposed that individuals should promote the measurable business value of PR. This solution is exceedingly necessary for perception towards clients and CEOs (and with the […]

  5. […] PR industry, I promise I’m about to explain the connection. See, PR has a perception problem. A big one. We’re spin doctors. All we do is publicity. We try to get people to buy things they […]

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