After a 43-year career in journalism (mainstream regional dailies in Dallas, Denver and elsewhere) and communications (stints with the Dallas Police Department and political public relations), I’ve been ruminating of late about PR-related experiences.
It’s my wife’s fault.
She’s an APR-certified, down-to-earth and very wise veteran public relations practitioner who, in my purely objective estimation (I kid you not, because professionalism rules both of us), could run any company’s communications department. I respect her mightily and the admirable recommendations she has for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) that she’s sharing with that organization, but that’s another story. Don't get me started.
As she has prepared those recommendations, I’ve overheard her anguish over everything from whether her ideas carry validity to the wording and processes involved in presenting them.
On my end, I’ve reflected about how I’ve encountered PR initiatives and practitioners over the years. None are (used to be “is” but no longer) innocent. With feigned self-humility and lavish hospitality, they played me and other newsroom staffers, some of whom reveled in the gifts and strokes that flowed from the ego-fertilizing PR cornucopia -- amazing thank-you gifts, product “samples” and, well, “arrangements” with their attractive colleagues.
Of course, the great newsroom ethics push that emerged prominently in the ’80s, spreading through the ’90s and into the 21st century, soured such practices to some degree. Nowadays, even a non-profit organization’s T-shirt promotion aimed at certain news departments (Features, for instance) will be sacked up and sent to a night shelter or some organization that provides clothing for the poor. Meals with PR reps are Dutch affairs. For ethical purity, no reporter should take a free meal from a practitioner or even at a civic club’s luncheon they’re covering. And no knowledgeable PR practitioner should dangle such temptations. But it happens. But it shouldn’t. But righteous ethics say, “No Freebies of Any Kind. They Compromise Your Credibility, Dear Journalist. They keell you! Eat, Drink and Revel at Your Risk.”
So I think back to my beginnings in the news business, back to the late ’60s when I began my career at my hometown newspaper, the Texarkana (Ark.-Tex.) Gazette. So many memories, but I remember in particular the Christmas holidays when the funeral homes would send their ambulance drivers and sometimes their funeral directors to our little street-level newsroom at night with gifts for us, the hard-working, barely paid news staffers.
And with what did the funeral homes ply us? Wonderful little aluminum calendar thingies that could be bent in just such a way as to clamp around our watch bands. We could have a year's worth of months-at-a-glance right there on our watch bands along with the funeral home's phone number.
Sometimes some of us would wonder: If we’re getting stuff this cool, what’s the publisher getting? What’s the ad department getting? What are the guys in the backshop getting other than drunk? I can only imagine the PR-focused gifts at such levels. Whatever they were, I doubt they outdid the gifts that flowed to sports staff at The Dallas Morning News.
As at the Gazette, I have fond (and humbling) holiday memories from my stint at The News. I recall times in 1970 when I observed cheery PR guys -- not PR womens -- dashing through the newsroom and laden with holidayish bags and boxes as they made a B-line to the sports department on the west end of the newsroom.
From my city desk vantage point near the center of the newsroom, I couldn’t tell what the heck they had for the sports guys, but that didn’t matter. Word got back to us. The sports guys got jugs of Johnnie Walker, Rolex watches and other expensive things. I can’t remember what all piled up over there, according to sources.
But we on the night city desk could not cast stones. We were also plied with PR gifts. Maybe they weren’t as elaborate as the freebies the sports guys got, but they got us past many a deadline in a merry fashion.
Every Thanksgiving and Christmas season, instead of Rolex watches and expensive scotch, we got a platter of SMU’s famous brownies and a turkey, the remains of which were stolen one year by a copy editor after the final edition shoved. I saw him do it. I had ambled to the south end of the third-floor (newsroom) hall to smoke a cigarette and stare out of the huge plate-glass window there when I looked down and saw that editor running through the parking lot with that huge, plattered turkey carcass. I watched him stuff it into the trunk of his car.
“Damn,” I thought. “If you’re that hungry, I ain’t telling nobody. Sure beats 2 a.m. nachos at the Green Glass bar.”
I’m not sure the turkey or the brownies scored any PR points, but they were received by editors and reporters with charitable joy.
Then there was the time around 1972 when I was working on a story related to a Dallas utility’s expensive farm operations. When I met with the head PR guy, a VP, I made the mistake of asking first, “Hey, who’s your secretary?”
Gawd, she was a beautiful long-haired brunette, single, blessed with a natural come-get-me smile and a refreshing air of decency, which, I will say to my certain condemnation, is not generally found among hard-edged, crusty newsroom women (thank God).
“What? Who is she?” the tailored, handsome VP whispered, leaning toward me. “Would you like to meet her?”
I had not matured beyond my East Texas yokel level. “Yes!” I said to the VP. And so it came to pass, on an evening not long thereafter, I was sitting in the secretary’s humble apartment living room in Oak Cliff, listening to her stories about growing up in Oklahoma and the Assembly of God church where women were extremely unlikely to be defiled. I didn’t see her again. Didn’t do that story, either. I was depressed. Tweeeeet! Victory for the utility.
But I learned some good lessons, e.g., always keep hormones in check, never get distracted from the assignment (do not ever test city editors’ patience), embrace sacrifice, hard-ass professionalism and skepticism. If you ever suspect you're being PR'd, you probably are. If you never suspect you're being PR'd, God help you.
I could go on with more anecdotes, but let’s pretend there are word limits in cyberspace.
What do you think of such PR practices from days of yore? Are they still going on (c’mon …)? How have PR ethics changed? What lessons have been learned? What sort of credibility can PR hope to develop?
Can credibility even be an issue in a craft that’s relies on selective truth? Is there really such a thing as a credible PR practitioner?
Who’s running the PR profession anyway? How do they impact the profession’s credibility? Is that “APR” just a fake credential? Why aren’t there more practitioners with that designation after their name? How many heads of PR agencies claim APR?
Isn’t “APR” in fact a useless string of letters? What are the issues/anecdotes that come to your mind? C’mon. Share. Madmen’s a true contemporary story, right?