Every year, working PR at Michigan’s one-of-a-kind Mackinac Policy Conference, I feel like I walk away learning something. This year, it’s about the PR business, more so than any of the topics discussed on stage. It hit me on the last day of the Conference, based on what I saw first-hand and what I read as I was leaving Mackinac Island.
First, I witnessed a PR professional pitching a fit, the likes of which I had never witnessed, but had heard about from journalists. I saw a representative of an elected government official in full tantrum mode. After verifying this with one of the journalists present, I can confirm that it started when TV news video journalists slightly moved the set-up for a press conference because under the setup the PR person wanted, the lighting would have been poor.
Even though a move toward proper lighting would benefit everyone involved, this PR person didn’t like it one bit. When I arrived, this individual was verbally tearing into the journalists because it wasn’t set up as she envisioned. One of the journalists there to witness the entire display of toddler emotion described it as “immature” and “inconsiderate.” Just after the tirade ended, the government official showed up and the news conference happened in the setup that the journalists wanted. Everything worked well and looked good, in my estimation. But her behavior represented the antitheses of how Tanner Friedman interacts with the media.
Just a few minutes later, I read versions of this story sent to me by friends and watched the accompanying video of how deposed Baylor University President Kenneth Starr’s PR advisor, after not revealing her true identity to a news crew, interrupted an interview to provide on-scene scripting, including a changed answer to a question. What transpired was unethical. It was deplorable and, unfortunately, ill-represents what we do for a living. It shows what happens when a bad client pairs with a unscrupulous excuse for a professional.
These two incidents represent a bigger problem in today’s Public Relations business, particularly on the still-vital media relations side of the industry. Too many in it have too little respect for the job of professional journalists. Too many actually hold disdain for the media, failing to embrace the concept that journalists are their customers also.
If you think you can “control the media,” you should take control of your career and find another way to make a living. If you harbor a lack of respect for journalists, you should do yourself and them a favor, and do something else other than pretend to do media relations. If you think “protecting” the powerful person you work for means trampling over journalists, you are simply doing it wrong. This career path will work for you and all of those you serve if you at least respect the newsgathering process, but it will be best for you if you downright enjoy it.
And what of the CEO, elected official, board chair or, worse yet, PR firm owner who condones this behavior? The simple analysis is that it’s a sign of someone in real trouble.