Yet another media post makes it to Twitter and Facebook. Yet another PR professional loses his/her job. Yet another client drops their agency like a hot potato on a public forum and uses the opportunity, ironically, to create PR for themselves.
Both the media and PR are doing their jobs. But when something goes wrong it is usually the PR team that bears the brunt of things or worse loses their livelihood.
More recently, several journalists have taken to posting nasty updates berating, demeaning, and humiliating PR professionals in condescending posts. Forget about professional courtesy, how do you justify doing this to another human being on a public platform and then go ahead and write about mental health awareness and propagate about being kind? Oxymoronic, right?
This practice is catching on and is in poor taste and unbecoming of the media profession. There are always two sides of a story but unfortunately, we never hear from the PR side because no one wants to take up the cudgels for a cub executive and because no one wants to get caught on the wrong side with a journalist. There are so many ways a journalist can handle the situation: escalate it to a PR senior/agency head, help the PR person understand, participate in industry sessions, and create a positive dialogue. Unfortunately, for most these options are very hard to do because it takes effort. Posting it on a social media network is an easy (read: lazy) way out. And it's not like journalists don't make mistakes or harass with insensitivity or come totally unprepared. Here again we see PR teams taking the brunt of it from clients. Yet, they handle this with elegance and a smile (huge respect!).
The whole industry relies on media and PR working together in a healthy empathetic environment and a lot of self-regulation on both ends. I have personally worked with several journalists over the past two decades and helped create some of their best work. But I remain in the shadows. Their respect and trust are what I earn from it. Nothing else. Yet there are others who are quick to berate and dismiss PR and even quicker to jump up and grab their jobs.
Somewhere we seem to have forgotten all about this cohesive empathetic environment that needs to exist to make this work. But I do believe it is not too late. We can start now. Today.
When I started out, I made a fair share of errors myself but am eternally grateful to those amazing journalists who went over and beyond, took the time to speak to a newbie like me and help me understand what works and what doesn't. Their feedback and encouragement helped me be an empathetic and astute PR professional. I have had many editors entrust me with guiding their cub reporters on events/stories and am glad to have won that trust. But it takes real effort from both ends.
Where do we start? What can the PR industry stop this toxic behavior and maybe prevent this?
1. Train, train, and train: When there is a breaking story/incident the easiest thing to do is to speak to your PR teams and help them understand what and how to pitch a story with empathy and sensitivity. Don't just bark orders and push them for stories. If it is a tough subject, take the lead and get your client involved and ask them for story pegs that will be suitable for them instead of just blindly agreeing to drum up multiple media opportunities. PR is an equal partnership between the client and the agency and they are as responsible for the success or failure of a story as the agency.
2. Learning culture: Encourage learning and foster an unbiased viewing of a subject or issue. This goes a long way in getting the team to understand the need for the above quick brainstorming and talk session. Make this a requirement for joining your agency to encourage this mindset among freshers wanting to join the industry.
3. Interactive sessions: Encourage such sessions with journalists and the PR community. Most of these sessions turn into a PR bashing session so you must be mindful about picking a speaker who can talk with empathy. A positive dialogue with best practices helps make working together far more pleasant.
4. PR for PR: Don't do it for an altruistic cause. Do it for yourself. If each PR professional does positive PR for oneself, imagine the overall impact it will have. We create impactful reputation-building campaigns for our clients. Why don't we ever think of using it for ourselves? For too long PR has been the whipping boy of the communication industry. Enough is enough. Start the education process about the power and impact of PR to the audience at large now. Today.
5. Journalist support: Educate the journalists you meet on how the PR system works and bust myths, assumptions, and preconceived notions that they have. If such a situation arises with any member of your team let them know the protocol and how you would address it. Encourage them to take that route instead of public shaming an individual. Be proactive and let them know how things are progressing once a complaint is raised.
6. Be kind: The individual who has made an error could have different motivations or could just be over enthusiastic about doing their jobs. Sit down with them and have an open chat about their approach to a story and help them understand what went wrong and how they can improve it. It cannot be a belittling session. If you preach empathy to the team member. Practice it as well. Start with them.
7. Clients: The easiest thing to do is throw out your agency. And when you do it on a public platform it says more about you than the agency. This is also the worst move a brand can make in trying to build a reputation for itself. Business is done between humans. And when you treat human beings, regardless of the profession or agency they are from, in an inhuman way you lose trust and credibility in the eyes of your customers.
Corporate social responsibility is not just a term. It is here to stay. Every customer will stand in judgement of you.
For a change, stand by your team. Help the person who made the error. Talk about that as a PR story. You will not just be talking about empathy but also actually living it and setting an example in the industry. How’s that for an idea?
Yes, it is possible to create an empathetic and respectful environment for both professions to work together. It need not be a forever toxic situation that some are trying to create today. Let’s work together to make this a mentally healthy industry for all of us.
The author is managing partner, Nucleus PR.