It took a local news story about “image makers” to remind me again that the media don’t like us — or at least they act like they don’t like us. I didn’t need the reminder, but there it was on page one.
Fact is, I’m OK with news-media types taking potshots at public relations. I mean, they need to assert their independence just like everyone else. So I say to my partners in public relations: Stick out your chins and let your reporter friends take their best shots. Trust me. It won’t hurt a bit.
That local story was Phil Trexler’s piece in last Sunday’s Akron Beacon Journal, flagship paper of the former Knight-Ridder chain. Trexler’s report doesn’t just cast aspersions on PR people, it questions the very need for us to exist — at least in the public sector, where taxpayers fund our salaries. The headline decries that “media handlers” often are paid more than teachers or police. Sheesh. Should I even try to point out the fallacies in that one? Nah. It’s too easy.
A sidebar lists the salaries of 8 public-sector PR types — salaries that surely have our counterparts in the private sector snickering. For example, the VP in charge of PR, marketing and development at the University of Akron, Paul Herold, makes a whopping $115,000. And he tops this money list! That’s a mid-manager’s salary in much of corporate America. But Paul is the top communications officer for a major state university that has 18,000 students, a $50-million endowment, and more constituencies than the Beacon Journal has advertisers.
Trexler points out that Herold makes 30% more than the average full professor at Akron U. What he doesn’t tell you is that the average professor has a 9-month contract while Herold works 12 months. And I doubt he checked Herold’s calendar, which I guarantee you is chocked full of evening and weekend assignments in addition to the usual 8-5 office time.
Trexler’s story also takes to task Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh for exercising ironfisted control over the media relations function. Walsh deserves some of that criticism, but her PR professional, at $64K, is hardly overpaid, even if she does make more than most assistant prosecutors. Her salary says more about the out-of-whack supply and demand for lawyers than anything else. Other targets of Trexler’s piece include PR pros at the City of Akron, Akron Schools, and my own employer, Kent State.
Anyone who’s spent 10 minutes in the PR business knows that our profession has an image problem. In part, it comes with the territory. When you sell anything, including your client’s message, there’s gonna be a little bit of mistrust. It happens to our world leaders, it happens to used car salesmen, it happens to everyone in between. That’s the nature of advocacy, and God help us if we try to silence it.
We all know the dark secret behind the PR-journalist relationship: Journalists would be hard pressed to do their jobs without our help. We do much of their background research, placing it on our corporate and organizational Web sites, available to the fourth estate 24/7. We also lead reporters to great stories they’d never find without our help. We even fight with our own management to be more open to free-press inquiry. Yep, we’re advocates all right. For the media!
As newsroom budgets continue to shrink, look for this co-dependence to grow — something that may not be good for either side.
My new friend and colleague, Jeanette Drake, serves as one of Trexler’s sources in the story. She speaks intelligently about PR’s role in organizations and the need to manage the communication function. If you make it to the last six paragraphs of his 1,500-word treatise, you’ll hear what Jeanette has to say. That damned inverted pyramid almost cut her off!
Having watched the media beat us up for three decades now, I’ve come to take it this all in stride. I hope those who’ve read this far will be able to do the same.
In the end, we all get up on the morning and we do our jobs. Maybe if they paid those reporters a little more they’d see things differently. But I doubt it.