The more than 250 delegates at the PRSA Assembly Oct. 16 were deeply divided about what PR’s role will be in 2015.

The split mirrored the divide among delegates about the worth of the APR program.

A move to let non-APRs on the board for the first time in 30+ years was defeated but it was argued long and hard in a Society e-group. The vote was 173 against the change but 104 in favor of it.

Delegates, who were given the entire afternoon of the Assembly to discuss the future of PR, were split about the importance or non-importance of the press.

A large majority saw a decline in press size and credibility and some suggested the press is destroying its own self because of lack of “fairness and objectivity.”

press hat
Role of press argued at PRSA Assembly.
A slide summed up this view:

“News is no longer vetted [meaning subjected to thorough and diligent review—ed. note] and gate-keepers [such as us] increasingly are being eliminated.

“The concept of ‘news’ and its corresponding ‘news values’ as they have evolved over the course of nearly two centuries is being diluted if not dissolved.

“Much, if not most, of the content in the new media has become once again ideological with no attempt at fairness and objectivity according to the traditional concept of news and its news values.”

The slide also says the new media are “creating a healthy skepticism about the truthfulness of media, refocusing responsibility on the consumers of these media.”

Patrick Jackson, 1980 Society president, was briefer in 1994 when he told Morley Safer his practice with the press was “duck ‘em, screw ‘em, and go direct.”

Another slide talked about the “deprofessionalization of traditional media and arguably, PR.”

'We Desperately Need' the Press

Several delegates objected to minimizing the role of the press and to the view expressed in another slide that said PR people must “Embrace IMC (integrated marketing communications) to reach highly distracted publics in a competitive communications environment.”

The slide urged PR people to work with traditional and new media but also work with advertising and marketing to achieve “strategic goals.”

However, one delegate said, “Don’t write off the traditional press.”

“Reporters are now living in different worlds where they continue to serve as experts and they represent a voice that we desperately need,” said the delegate.

Another said reporters and editors are losing their jobs for one reason or another but they are learning to adapt to the new economics and technology and “will be back stronger than ever.”

Mike Cherenson, 2009 Society chair, said the New Jersey chapter held a meeting that featured an international speaker and only eight people showed up. But a session featuring reporters drew 80, he said.

Bleak Job Picture Painted

Prof. Donald Wright of Boston University said the PR job market is “saturated” and that beginners are lucky to get $35K in New York.

PR people have to move around a lot to make more money, he said, because the conglomerate-owned agencies limit raises to 3% every 15 months.

A delegate said information technology was not only supplying the hardware but “taking control of content.”

Another thought expressed was that the profusion of new and old media is causing PR pros to “lose control of their audiences…your audiences are shifting and you’re not going there with them.”

A delegate said “the words public relations can’t be expanded to include communications and we must deal with that.”

A professor complained that college PR courses are often years behind what is happening in the markeplace because “it takes a long time to change a curriculum…by the time the changes are made, they’re outdated.”

A delegate said the Society “led the way” in offering seminars and webinars on social media but that such courses now flood the internet, providing stiff competition.

Where Are We Now?

A delegate wanted to know how the PR study groups could talk so much about where PR will be in five years when there is no description of where PR is now.

His question went unanswered.

We had our own thoughts after watching this debate for nearly three hours.

Regrettably and unprofessionally, the Society wouldn’t let us tape this dialogue and thus far has said it won’t offer a tape of the Assembly (which was made) to members.

Up until 2005, transcripts of the Assembly were available for the asking. Last year, the Society wouldn’t even make a transcript.

Society members as well as non-members should be able to study what was said Oct. 16—just like sports fans get to see interesting plays in super slow motion. This is one of the reasons sports are so popular these days.

Almost all sports (with the exception of baseball) have embraced the new technologies and have expanded their audiences.

The reactionary culture of PRS is nowhere more evident than in its refusal to audiocast the Assembly or provide a transcript of it. Also hidden is the voting record of the delegates. Proxies were again allowed in violation of Robert’s Rules but there is no word on the number of proxies voted, who voted them or how they were voted.

The reporting we’ve done above is not as complete as we would like because the Society forbade us from making our own recording. We’re hoping the Committee for a Democratic PRSA will stay alive and push for an Assembly transcript and delegate voting record. These documents belong in member hands.

Third Party Endorsement Unmentioned

The delegates could not say where PR is now and there was little mention of PR’s past.

But PR pros had a firm grip on what their job was in the 1960s, 70s and part of the 80s—make as many press friends as possible and boost the image of employers and their products by obtaining “third party endorsements.” Also, pick up any “skinny” the reporters might have.

Socializing by PR pros and their spouses with reporters and their spouses was the norm. We were guests at more than 30 homes of PR pros and reciprocated. There was a parade of lunches and press happenings and “nights on the town.”

Big companies had outreach programs that sent PR staffers to the desksides of editors.

Our July 1989 magazine catalogued the numerous annual events of the blue chips including:

--Mobil’s “Summer Garden Party” for the press at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
--The annual “Press Dinner” of Standard Oil Co. at the St. Regis Hotel Roof, New York.
--ITT Annual Brussels Boys’ Club Dinner at the St. Regis Roof plus annual picnics in Nutley, N.J., for 200+ reporters and their families.
--American Stock Exchange golf outing and dinner for reporters at the Westchester Country Club.
--American Can Co. annual holiday party for press at the Four Seasons restaurant.
--Ethyl Corp. up until 1988 had a major year-end press lunch in New York at the Plaza Hotel or Chemists Club.
--RCA Corp. often took reporters to distance places including Puerto Rico as part of product introductions. One was a weekend at Gurney’s Inn, Montauk, that included a golf outing. RCA threw the biggest party at the New York Financial Writers’ Follies each year.
--Texaco each year took a bus load of reporters to the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, treating them to dinner in New York at day’s end.
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had year-end press parties at the Detroit Press Club.

W.R. Grace & Co. had an annual St. Patrick’s Day party in New York for more than 100 reporters and spouses. Peter Grace often attended. Hoechst Celanese each year hosted more than 100 fashion and trade press at its East Side New York townhouse.

The above list only scratches the surface of company-hosted press outings. PR firms and ad agencies hosted the press in numerous ways.

Manning, Selvage & Lee, Doremus & Co. and Carlson, Rockey & Assocs., had annual golf outings for reporters. Many ad agencies invited press to holiday parties. Kenyon & Eckhardt and West, Weir & Bartel hosted dinners at their offices, explaining the different departments to reporters and their spouses.

George Whipple, PR head at Benson & Bowles, took press and an agency exec to lunches and urged reporters to call up the execs at any time without going through him. Whipple hosted nearly 100 press and PR people for dinner at his home in Carmel, N.Y., one Saturday night.

Trade groups such as the Ad Club of New York, Ad Women of New York, and the PR Society invited press to their annual banquets.

The PR Society not only invited press to its Silver Anvil Awards banquet but included reporters as judges. This writer was an Anvil judge three times in the 1970s.

Most Groups Disappeared

Our 9/24/1975 NL listed 23 New York PR groups that met at least once a month. At least 10 disappeared—Chemical Comms. Assn.; Financial Relations Society; Monday II Group (corporate); New York Airline PR Assn.; Paper Industry PR Group; Pride & Alarm (created APR); PR Roundtable (35 PR heads of ad agencies); Shop Talk (heads of 12 big PR firms); Wall St. Irregulars (financial PR pros, press), and Wednesday PR Group (firm owners).

There were monthly lunches with prominent speakers of the New York chapter of PRS that attracted 300 and more. Those disappeared 20 years ago. The National Investor Relations Institute had similar lunches at the top of the GE building or Princeton Club but they stopped at least ten years ago.

Corporate and agency PR executives expressed themselves in public appearances or essays.

Hill & Knowlton in 1976 published a 228-page collection of speeches by their executives on a variety of subjects.

The “single spokesperson” dictum that has gripped the industry had not taken hold.

If PR people are going to predict where PR is headed, they first must know where it has been and where it is now.

Is the current model of PR better or worse than the model that was extant in the 1960s, 70s and part of the 80s?

The reasons for the changes should be explored.