Friday, March 10, 2006

Are PR People "Challenged"

As an agency principal (a new role for me), I am often preoccupied with two big HR challenges: attracting great people to the agency, then keeping them. In PR, as in other consulting businesses, it's all about the people. And if you look closely at the two most vexing challenges, it’s about (1) the younger folks who represent the future of the business, and (2) the somewhat older folks who are capable of defining the business today. Both are in short supply.

Let’s start with the younger folks. In a nutshell, here's the problem: no one ever grows up thinking, "I want to become a PR person."

There are several good reasons for this. First, the role that the profession plays in our society has never been well understood (case in point, my parents still struggle to understand how what I do meaningfully differs from what advertisers do).

Second, this is not a profession that gets much love from the world at large. Why expose yourself to the ridicule of your peers who are entering "real professions like journalism," as one communications student recently framed it to me.

Third -- if you're looking for role models, good luck. Unless you actually know someone in the profession, chances are you wouldn't know the attributes that define the ideal PR pro.

Hollywood is no help here. Future lawyers have "A Few Good Men." Budding journalists have "All the President's Men." I've searched far and wide, and the best I could come up with is a few hilarious scenes in "A Mighty Wind" (e.g., click on the clip called "He'll Make it a Fire.") The scenes are hilarious because they remind us of the public's dim view of our profession. In cinema, there are no inspirational role models for PR; instead we have clowns.

The PR pros in "A Mighty Wind" make us laugh because they are so "challenged" -- they are challenged professionally, ethically, and, most painful of all (the sharpest edge of the joke), intellectually. This problem -- the "dumb PR person" caricature -- has always plagued our profession.

But now we have an even greater challenge to deal with: the fear that new media signals the end to our profession, because PR people (duh) will have little to do. A number of prominent PR bloggers have been debating whether new media poses a real threat, which at first glance seems real enough. After all, new media provides business with DIY tools. Blogging, in essence, enables DIY publishing. Podcasting is DIY broadcasting (a reality so stark, it has to be sending shivers through the VNR community). And wikis, one of our favorite tools at Eastwick, enables DIY communities, markets, and, conceivably, social movements. Who needs PR people in this new world, unless you are going to keep them just to do traditional media relations?

But therein lies the biggest challenge for PR. For many years, particularly in technology, PR meant media relations, and little else. Now, many of us for the first time see there's an opportunity to assist our clients in doing what our profession professes we do: "relating to the public." And forward-l0oking PR people have already awakened to this reality, and are beginning to see how what we have always been good at may in fact command a premium in the new world. It's a little thing called "social intelligence."

In the old world, some of the best PR pros stood out for their extraordinary ability to connect their clients and socialize them into important communities. Today, that innate intelligence is in even greater demand as businesses realize that have the ability to create their own communities. But the social intelligence that has always rewarded the top professionals in our industry has always been a scarce commodity. It will continue to be scarce, and we can comfortably predict that the best in our profession will always have work.

And here's the great news: the pool of applicants will get even better. Clue: take a look at some of the social rules that govern online behavior. This is our own assessment, yes, but it's safe to say that in order for someone to be successful today in the online world, they will need to be particularly smart and/or sensitive about ethics, group dynamics, and some of the nice, mechanical efficiencies that exist in the online world. Today, at Eastwick, we're getting interest from recent graduates who studied things like social sciences, management, and public policy; those disciplines have always sent gifted people to our profession. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that for these new applicants, the connection between what they studied and what they can now do as professionals -- well, it's a lot more real.

But it's not just the young people that are excited. There appears to be a general reawakening for the entire profession, and it is energizing and redirecting many industry veterans, some of whom admit to have lost their way over the years. Shel Israel, who now calls himself a recovering publicist, is a hot item on the PR lecture circuit and appears to be genuinely happy playing the role of industry gadfly. And I've witnessed a change in my partners, my peers, and, yes, even myself. It's a good time to be in PR because we have an opportunity to not only transform the profession and elevate it beyond the point of ridicule, but to also direct its path toward some truly good and decent things for society. The best PR folks always had this sense of purpose (they are not "challenged" -- they are doing the challenging) but the hope is that now even more people will understand what we do, and why what we do is good. Who knows, maybe we'll even get better Hollywood role models.


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