Variety fuels local comms
In the fifth year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek is returning to cities it has previously visited, as well as adding a handful of new regions to the rotation.
For each event, leading PR pros from a variety of agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and other organizations gather in a roundtable discussion about the issues affecting them and their peers. PRWeek's Erica Iacono and Ted McKenna were in Washington, DC, for this year's fifth Regional Forum.
Academic director, GWU's Graduate School of Political Mgt.
VP of PR, National Retail Federation
Andy Linebaugh PR director, National
Director of public affairs, CIA
Assistant administrator for public affairs, NASA
SVP and US public affairs practice leader, Waggener Edstrom
President, Vanguard Communications
Allison May Rosen
Head of DC office, Chandler Chicco Agency
President and CEO, SpeakerBox Communications
MD and DC market leader, Burson-Marsteller
President, Walls Communications
Ted McKenna (PRWeek): How would you describe the market in DC now? How has it changed over the years?
Allison May Rosen (Chandler Chicco Agency): There was this notion, I think, that DC was this island over there and what happened within the Beltway stayed within the Beltway. Now, just like if something happens on Wall Street, it happens on Main Street, if something happens on Pennsylvania Avenue or Capitol Hill, it happens on Wall Street, too. Reporters are covering it that way, clients are seeing it that way, and you can't really separate the two anymore.
Don Bates (George Washington University): I lived down here in the late '70s. [Back] then, there were probably a half-dozen PR firms, and there were two or three people on their staff. Fast forward and look where it is today; it's grown enormously. Back then, you'd still get a lot of people in New York saying: "Who would want to be in DC? It's all politics." It has grown and changed and evolved.
Shonali Burke (ASPCA): I'm the VP for professional development on IABC's board. I've seen the perception that this is a town that only focuses on politics change in the type of audience we have for events. In the past three years, we've tried to mix it up and not just make it all about healthcare or internal or government. I think there is a growing desire to grow out of the box, and certainly a lot of people in their 20s want to get away from, "Well I can only do healthcare" or "I can only do government."
Scott Krugman (National Retail Federation): A lot of our focus 10 years ago was Capitol Hill; now, a lot of our focus is thought leadership. By having a voice on issues like banking, we're giving our organization more credibility on Capitol Hill, and that makes our lobbyists' jobs easier. So it's just a greater awareness and more appreciation for the value that PR is bringing day in and day out.
Torod Neptune (Waggener Edstrom Worldwide): From the vantage point of someone who's always been in the business of public affairs, the business of Washington is by and large the same, but what has changed is how influence happens or how you influence that business. What were our traditional influence tools 10 years ago have been added to significantly by looking at the social new media and the way that people are influenced today, which has changed dramatically from 10 years ago, when we could all have done our job via fax and press release.
Maria Rodriguez (Vanguard Communications): [Our agency is] 20 years old, and when I think about what we did 20 years ago, I would say 100% of our business was media relations. Now, it's far more of a broader, integrated marketing approach, looking for marketing, public education.
David Mould (NASA): Growth probably reflects what you see in the corporate side, as well. Ten or 15 years ago, the PR department was a little group over there somewhere. Just as with new measurement tools [where] there's a way to track influence on stock prices, there's an influence you can measure on what the political leaders or the congressional delegations think of you. The PR guy's office is creeping closer and closer to the CEO's suite.
McKenna (PRWeek): Do government agencies appreciate PR more?
Elizabeth Shea (SpeakerBox Communications): You see a lot more spending toward it. We do not work with government agencies, but I know from peers I've talked to that, all of a sudden, firms that wanted to keep it quiet now want to promote their efforts.
Rosen (CCA): There's so much more accountability. Everybody's raising questions about where our tax dollars are going, who's spending what. So, in using these tax dollars, it's important to show that we've reached these people, because that's what they told us to do.
Erica Iacono (PRWeek): When we were last here two years ago, there was a lot of news about the government and use of PR, with the Armstrong Williams scandal and The New York Times article on the government's use of VNRs. Do those issues still affect your work?
Mould (NASA): We're careful not to do things that might be perceived as crossing the line. I think one thing that sets NASA apart from a lot of agencies is we don't have trouble getting media interest. Our triumphs are pretty well established, and our mistakes are national tragedies quite often.
We do try to be very mindful of our reputation on the Hill, our reputation with the general public, and more and more, our reputation with young people. Since the average age of our work force is about 50, we're working on our reputation with people who are kids so we will have the people to actually staff the agency when the time comes.
Mark Mansfield (CIA): At my agency, when director Michael Hayden came in and was confirmed, he said the CIA should have a social contract with the American people, and there was nothing that was more important than having an open and honest relationship with [them].
One of the ways we do that, and it's affected all of our business, is Web-based communications. When the director gives a speech, we'll be able to post it immediately on the Web for anyone to access, as opposed to being subject to reportorial interpretation.
Rob Tappan (Burson-Marsteller): I worked for a time at the State Department, and if you go to www.state.gov, for instance, you'll see a lot of video that's clearly marked as coming from the State Department. You'll see a lot of live briefings or video of briefings that have taken place archived, and I really applaud the State Department for trying to embrace a lot of new technologies.
With regard to the work force, it's the same in the State Department as it is in a lot of agencies. There is an aging work force that is about to retire or is close to retirement.
McKenna (PRWeek): I notice some trade associations hire outside firms while others do most work in-house.
Andy Linebaugh (National Education Association): I've been there four years. [In that time,] I've tripled the budget and tripled the staff. We've eliminated all outside agencies. We have some focus inside the Beltway; we have to do that. But we're doing a lot more political communications outside the Beltway. We've had every debate covered with staff on the ground. These are things we'd never thought to do. One thing I've noticed is that we're now part of the strategic decision-making.
Iacono (PRWeek): How is the '08 election affecting your work?
Bates (GWU): I wrote an e-mail to a bunch of agencies with exactly that question. Most of them came back and said it's the same in every election cycle: There tends to be a slowdown in money going to PR work in the final year because the money shifts to advertising. Then as soon as the election is over, it jumps considerably; there's a considerable amount of new business.
Rodriguez (Vanguard): For us it just opens up incredible opportunities. There might be issues that are bubbling to the top, so it gives you that opportunity to position that voice around the election, around individual candidates. We have clients who come and say, "How do we get candidates to talk about this issue? We want our issue to be a platform issue."
Lon Walls (Walls Communications): From the standpoint of a small agency like ours, where we're targeting multicultural audiences, you talk about financial literacy, healthcare - these are the big topics today. So you've got either political campaigns or organizations saying, "We want to target audiences with a particular message." The advantage of being in the DC market as opposed to some other market is that you've got The Washington Post and other media entities here, so it resonates beyond just Washington.
The Media Scene
McKenna (PRWeek): What is the media market like now? How has it evolved?
Walls (Walls Communications): Jena 6 is a good example, where bloggers started the whole thing, then you have folks in DC and other markets who helped to perpetuate and move the whole issue.
I tell people about African-American newspapers, and they say, "Well, the circulation is not that good." But if an African-American paper in DC has got a circulation of 49 people and they happen to be members of the Congressional Black Caucus, that's OK- that's all you need. The same thing goes here for bloggers, YouTube - those things help enhance what we are doing in DC.
Mould (NASA): It also gives us a lot more work to do. The stuff that is sometimes unfavorable and often downright inaccurate, you have to beat these things down. And often they have credibility and a reach they didn't have before because the media that we're traditionally used to working with are accountable to some higher entity, whereas these bloggers are not.
Linebaugh (NEA): To me it's also about managing expectations. I'm a believer that we should attack somebody who is attacking us. But sometimes we have to say, "OK, this was just on the blog," and give the advice to our CEO or president that it's not worth a response - that this is not the audience we're trying to reach, these are not the influencers we're trying to get, so please don't ask me to spend time responding to this.
Mansfield (CIA): The other point is how ephemeral the business can be, where depending on what is going on in the world in any given day, a story can make page one or page 37 more so than ever before in my career.
Bates (GWU): The big irony here, and I keep up with social media, is that despite the headlines, it's not as powerful as most of us think. Every poll shows that conventional advertising is still the number-one communications tool to reach the voter. E-mail is one of the ones at the top, but blogs are down at the bottom, and podcasts are practically falling off the precipice. But they get so much attention.
Rosen (CCA): I'm not sure it's consistent from industry to industry in terms of what people are going after to get online. In healthcare, there are 115 million people who go online for healthcare information. So now we have all kinds of questions: What does that mean about how you engage with that number of people who go online? This is a whole new world.
Iacono (PRWeek): It must be the same for tech companies.
Shea (SpeakerBox): Our audience is people who buy tech products. For us, those people live online. And in our particular industry, the tech-publication industry, there has been a bloodbath. [Titles] are merging, and people have been laid off. Our audience is changing, and online is primarily how our audience gets their information.
Mould (NASA): The constant here with all these changing technologies is that there are still people behind these things, and it's still the same old one-on-one relationship marketing that we've had to have with reporters all along. Maybe the people are harder to find and track down, and [it's harder to] get their attention now, but there's still no substitute for knowing who's watching you.
Iacono (PRWeek): What is the PR community like in Washington? Is it cohesive?
Tappan (Burson): I think in this market we're no longer in the land of the generalist. We've got a lot of very specialist firms on the government relations side, on the PR side, on the holding side, and advertising, of course. So I think there are a lot of pockets of people who know each other. There are a couple of bigger firms that do a good job of keeping alumni going. I know Burson does that. Powell Tate did it for a long time, and there's still a healthy group going on.
Neptune (WE): I think Washington is pretty incestuous. Most of us, by two or three degrees, know the same people, and that's somewhat unique to Washington and particularly if you've been here awhile. It may not be direct, but I guarantee that less than three steps away there is a mutual industry contact.
Iacono (PRWeek): How would you assess the talent situation for the industry here?
Shea (SpeakerBox): I'm on the board of the Greater Washington Initiative, which is a public-private partnership to promote this region. It just put out a report this year and had some numbers that were staggering: they're predicting in six years 7,400 PR specialists will be required in this region, and they don't live here yet. So that means relying on the education system to produce people. We cannot hire people fast enough. It is so hard to find people.
Burke (ASPCA): There is such a lack of the understanding of the basic tools of the trade. They come from well-known communications schools and programs, but they don't know how to write a press release, or they don't know what a fact sheet is.
Tappan (Burson): There's a cross-cutting thing that's generational. For every young or junior person you find who comes out of college or is new to the PR business who doesn't know how to write a press release or maybe lacks some basic skills we'd think they would have, there are also the other generations or more senior people who are not thinking the same way [in terms of] new media. I think the key is to meld the two. Then you've got a real good mix.
McKenna (PRWeek): Do the people you hire need to have specialized knowledge of the organization?
Mansfield (CIA): Not at all. I've got about 25 people who work for me. Some of them are communications professionals with backgrounds in journalism. Others come with purely intelligence backgrounds, whether it be in analysis or even clandestine operations. What I'm looking for with every single person I hire is someone who can write effectively and clearly.
Rosen (CCA): I find that IM has helped me become a better writer because I talk out loud when I write that message. There's something about the fluidness of using that to talk to someone. It has actually made me a better writer because I'm writing more like I speak.
Krugman (NRF): I actually have the opposite concern about the texting generation. They don't write full sentences. If we think it's tough pickings now...
Second Life - that scares me, to think people are living in virtual worlds. No one's learning to communicate. Just getting on the phone and pitching people. We are salespeople, as well - and that skill set is going away.
Rodriguez (Vanguard Comms): We often do projects for youth, and I have to tell you there are things that come forward that I don't understand. I find that I have a 23-year-old managing the development of this youth product because that person can communicate with them in a way that I can't, certainly, or some of the more senior managers. So even some of that shorthand writing or writing online that we see that makes you cringe at times is important if you're trying to reach that audience.
This article was first published on PR Week USA
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