A Chat with PRSA’s Arthur Yann, APR – Part 2

USA, California, Los AngelesRecently, we featured part one of our two-part interview with Arthur Yann, APR, vice president of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). This week, we wrap up the interview with Arthur’s thoughts on why PR has gotten a bit of a bad reputation in recent years, the Society’s Business Case for Public Relations initiative and other topics.

Keith Trivitt: We addressed one of my biggest beefs with the PR business, the bashing the industry often takes from outsiders, in a recent PRBreakfastClub post. You weighed in with some great insight in the comments. Can you give us a bit more color into that? What’s PRSA’s stance on why PR has gotten a bit of a bad reputation in recent years, and how can the organization help professionals overcome this?

Arthur Yann: I can think of several reasons why the industry does not enjoy the reputation it deserves.

It starts with a lack of understanding about what we do as public relations professionals. You know, there’s an old joke that not even our mothers “get” what it is we do for a living, and it’s true. I can tell you that the media doesn’t understand it, at least not completely. They tend to equate public relations to publicity, as if that’s the only service we provide. They also tend to refer to every corporate misstep as a public relations “nightmare” or a public relations “disaster.” Few, if any, of those events have anything to do with public relations; they’re just bad management decisions or crises of some sort.

As an industry, we also continue to suffer from some high-profile ethical lapses. Ethical behavior is the most important obligation of a public relations professional, given the level of public trust we seek, yet the industry continues to hurt itself in this regard. You know, I found it ironic when the leader of a major international public relations firm that was guilty of some significant ethical breeches said that he found the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) credential irrelevant; yet, ethics are a significant part of the APR process.

Speaking of which, the APR also helps to address another industry challenge, which is that some practitioners simply are not very effective at what they do — whether it’s in their approach or their inability to deliver and measure results — and that’s because anyone can hang out their shingle and open for business. So why be afraid of something that attempts to make us better practitioners and moves us closer to professional credibility? Maybe then we wouldn’t have bloggers compiling lists of  public relations “spammers,” or a blog dedicated to bad pitches. I’ve heard the critics’ arguments, yet I haven’t heard one of them come forward with a better option. The fact that APR is not as widely recognized as it should be doesn’t mean the program is useless, as one pro recently called it; that’s just ridiculous.

Then there are the “reality” television shows that depict what it’s “really” like to work in public relations. On one hand, I’m generally in favor of anything that raises the profile of our industry. On the other, I’m a bit horrified that someone might watch a show like “Spindustry” or “PoweR Girls” and take away the perception that all public relations professionals do is hobnob with celebrities and party plan.

Finally, there’s no one out there actively championing the public good that is served by our industry. And it goes beyond providing a voice in the marketplace of ideas to aid informed public debate. Public relations has served immeasurable public good. It has changed attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues, prevented consumer injury and illness, raised awareness of products that have improved our quality of life, advanced worthwhile causes and provided pro-bono services for institutions that needed public relations assistance but could not afford it. Those are stories that the industry needs to tell.

KT: There has been some talk recently within the industry about PRSA’s new initiative, The Business Case for Public Relations. Can you give us an idea of what this initiative is, how it evolved and what are its goals?

AY: An important part of our mission at PRSA is to foster more accurate and better-informed perceptions of the value and role of public relations in the diverse organizations it serves – essentially, to address some of those reputational issues we just discussed. One way we are approaching this is through “The Business Case for Public RelationsTM.”

The framework for The Business Case was created with the help of public relations industry leaders from major public relations agencies and leading corporations. The goal is to drive industry recognition and growth by helping professionals in the field educate key audiences about public relations’ roles and outcomes, demonstrate its strategic value and enhance its reputation.

To do this, we’re providing learning opportunities, industry intelligence and turnkey communications resources, in the hope of creating industry “evangelists” who will help us spread the word. We offer everything from articles on communicating with clients or senior management about the value and benefits of public relations to a database of Silver Anvil case histories categorized by business outcome to a collection of measurement resources that offer practical help for demonstrating the value of communications programs.

KT: Social media and digital communications are obviously very hot topics at the moment within the PR industry, but there still seem to be struggles from both an agency and an organizational perspective to get some constituents on board. How can PRSA help both members and non-members educate their constituents about the benefits of social media? What resources might be available?

AY: I’ve heard people say that PRSA is behind the curve on social media, but I don’t think there is anyone in this industry doing as much social media education as PRSA is.

At last year’s International Conference, for example, more than one-quarter of the learning sessions focused on new and social media strategies, tactics and measurement. And our learning sessions were taught by some real thought leaders in social media, people such as Peter Himler, Lee Odden, Brian Solis, Deirdre Breakenridge, Ariel Hyatt, Joseph Jaffe, Juliette Powell  and Kami Huyse.

If you go to the learning section of the PRSA website, we have close to 700 resources on social media, ranging from seminars, teleseminars and webinars to blog posts. I think that’s a great place to begin for anyone who wants to get smarter about social media.

KT: What are some things we should watch for from PRSA in the coming months and years?

AY: We’ve taken on a wide variety of new projects this year. They include the APR+M accreditation program specifically for military communicators, and new PRSSA and Jobcenter websites. And, we’re now in the midst of conducting focus groups across the country, one of the goals of which is to develop more targeted and relevant programming for senior professionals.

We’re also working on projects to make it easier to do business with PRSA, by adding things such as a new online member application, event registration process and shopping cart feature.

Of course, we’re also continuing to develop The Business Case, and looking at various ways that we can make other aspects of our Advocacy and Diversity programs even more effective.

These are all major investments for a non-profit, especially one like PRSA that hasn’t raised its member dues in 10 years.

KT: How do people get involved with PRSA? Beyond just becoming a member, what are some other engagement opportunities (committees, volunteering, etc.) professionals can participate in?

AY: Most of the products and services that we offer, including our International Conference, are available to members as well as non-members. This gives individuals who are considering membership a great opportunity to get a feel for who we are and what we do. But, joining is really as simple as going to the membership area of our website and signing up. From there you can elect to join one of PRSA’s local Chapters, where you can become a visibly engaged member of your local public relations community, develop new contacts and increase your professional knowledge.

You can also join one of our Professional Interest Sections, which are micro-communities that focus on issues, trends and research in specialized practice areas and industries. Sections offer programs and face-to-face networking events that keep you connected with your peers and on top of the latest public relations best practices.

In terms of volunteer opportunities, we have more than 25 national committees that are staffed and run by volunteers, and there are myriad opportunities to take on Chapter, Section, District and national leadership positions, as well. All you have to do is take that first step and join.

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  • Great post, Keith and Arthur. It’s always great to hear PR professionals speaking on the “negative perception” so many have about this great industry. Last week, I was very happy to read The NY Times’ story on HP and APCO – it was one of the first positive pieces I’ve read on the industry in a long time.

  • Thanks for chiming in, Kion, and I’m really happy to see you got so much out of the interview. Arthur is a great guy and one of the really good ones in the PR profession. It was quite a joy to interview him and hear his thoughts on the business.

    As for that NYT article on HP and APCO – I actually have to disagree with you regarding whether that story was a positive piece about the PR profession. IMO, it put the PR business in the light of undermining corporate boards and other executives during sensitives times, and whether or not that was the case with HP, the way the article and story was framed was that APCO was brought in to clean up the image of a disgraced CEO, not to actually build the image of that CEO and his company. I think those are two different things, the former being something I hope our profession is not viewed as doing (though, I’m sure, for some, that is the perception), while the latter is the type of work I believe PR professionals should be engaging in on behalf of clients.

    Unfortunately, the perception that we are brought in during sensitive times to clean up a mess is often the one that is seen most publicly.

  • Keith,

    That’s a very interesting perspective — I didn’t consider that, at all. After reading the article, my perception was that APCO did an excellent job of advocating ethical decisions and convinced the company to be pro-active.