Inside the PR game
Written by: Jason Hovet, Klára Smolová, Petr Vykoukal
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
PR. The acronym that’s become both noun and verb – and one of the hottest employment sectors. At the same time, PR in the minds of many equals the manipulation of information. What’s the real story behind the mythical image?
A JOURNALIST of a daily newspaper is approached by a consultant from a small PR company with an offer of CZK 50,000 to get an interview with his client published. Local media are offered a press release about how one Czech steel company helps artists for free. It can be published, but under one condition – the photos must also show the general director of the company. A multinational invites selected journalists for a presentation of their product in Munich, Madrid, or the Canary Islands – transportation and accommodation covered by the company.
These are just a few examples of typical public relations (PR) practices. As a young sector in the Czech Republic, PR has been maturing rapidly. But the border between various types of communication – PR, marketing, advertising or lobbying – is still unclear, as well as the ethics of some of the practices. How well is PR doing to improve the sector’s less-than-shining reputation? Or, in other words: how well is the sector “PRing” itself?
A rite of passage
Public relations has come a long way in the last 15 years, and Michal Donath has watched the transformation firsthand. After working as a stringer for western news agencies, Donath took his contacts in media and government to the realm of PR, starting with Burson-Marsteller in 1991. Seven years later, he bought the international agency’s Czech and Slovak branches, and now sits as managing director of Donath-Burson-Marsteller. “In the early days,” Donath explains, “PR services were understood as organizational support.” As many western countries were storming the market then, clients mainly wanted help to launch new products or introduce their company’s name on the market. So services were not that sophisticated: writing a short press release, organizing a party, or holding some event or press conference, where the PR professional’s biggest responsibility was making sure all the journalists came. “Those were the pioneer days when everything was simple, when every name was a novelty, so it was a relatively easy sell,” Donath points out, adding that “there was limited competition.”
By the mid-90s, that had changed with more competition. This coincides with a maturing of the media, which was also becoming increasingly aggressive. “Companies started to realize that media relations are something very important,” Donath says, adding at this time, DBM (then only Burson-Marsteller) sold its first media training courses. “Clients started asking for a different kind of service,” he adds. Jiří Hrabovský, director of Ewing Public Relations, who used to work as a journalist until the beginning of ‘the 90s, says: “Hand in hand with the growing demand from clients, the PR scene was maturing and the know-how of agents improved. One contributing factor was the entrance of many foreign PR firms on the market.” Value-added services started to develop, which basically saw more consulting and a closer cooperation between agency and client. At the same time, according to Donath, “companies began using different ways of communicating their issues.” Thus lobbying was born in the Czech Republic.
Today, PR, marketing, advertising, and even lobbying seem to blur. The general public – as well as some professionals in the industry – don’t see the difference between them. Maybe this can be attributed to the fact that in some companies these areas of responsibility fall under the same department. According to Mikoláš Černý, director of PGM and co-founder of the Komora PR (KoPR), another reason for confusion is that “in the PR sector people from the advertising branch appear and have the feeling that everything can be bought.” Presum-ably, that’s not how PR works. Milan Hejl, managing partner at AMI Communications, explains: “PR stands on the offer of information and data, and a willingness to comment and discuss topics; it never pays for space in media and has no control over the final result. In advertisement you have complete control over the published materials, but you have to pay for space.”
Four years ago, the Association of Public Relations Agencies (APRA) initiated a study among journalists to find out how PR services were perceived. From the pool of 300 journalists approached, about 90% stated that one of the ethical principles expected from PR consultants is to respect the truth, and not to spread lies or misleading information. But when asked whether they really are respected, only 20% responded in the affirmative. Among the negative factors influencing the perception of PR, those most quoted were: suspicion of corruption and attempts to bribe journalists (18%); annoyance (16%); and lying or spreading misleading information (10%).
If the research was conducted today, the results would probably be more positive. Still most PR professionals won’t deny that the business has a bad reputation. They also agree that the blame is a two-or three-way street involving agencies and journalists, as well as clients. The main problem is between PR and the media. “I think there is friction between journalists and PR agencies,” Donath admits, adding that “this stems from a lack of professionalism on both sides.” Černý perceives a similar situation. “There are a number of people working in PR today who don’t have a basic idea how reporters work and what the priorities of the media are,” he opines.
It’s not just PR professionals who have a flawed understanding of PR’s relationship with the media. Donath recalls one tender he was involved in that inquired about his skills in “media lobbying”. A strange term perhaps, but Donath admits there are firms who feel the media can be easily manipulated, or “lobbied.” One such practice is called by the western term “negative PR” – or preventing a story from being published. “There are rich companies who think they can afford anything,” Donath says. Hrabovský also agrees that some clients find it quite normal to buy a so-called “PR article” (an article that is actually advertising or PR, without being clearly distinguished from the editorial content). He notes that such articles usually lack the substance and impact as a real news article, and claims that “everyone recognizes them”.
However, as advertising is a prime source of revenue for publications, most feel this is a problem fueled by advertisers and profit-hungry media. Judita Urbánková, PR manager of Prague’s Hilton hotel confirms that she is commonly approached by magazines offering to publish articles about the hotel – contingent on the hotel placing ads with the magazine.
But the “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” system also works the other way around. It’s a common practice that advertising sales people encounter: an advertiser’s condition for buying an ad rests on a story (a positive one, of course) about them appearing in the magazine. And since the battle for advertising space is so fierce, it’s not unusual for media to compromise. “If we have a big client that buys advertising worth millions, and he wants us to write about him as well, we try to come to some agreement and cooperate,” admits Tomáš Tkačík, general director of Springer media, a publisher of specialized magazines about housing, construction, and the automotive industry. Pavel Vondráček, editor-in-chief of Maxim magazine, says that allowing this kind of PR pressure may be acceptable in the event that the product or service in question is so good that the journalist would write about it anyhow.
Improving the image
So it seems to be a learning process on both sides. Libor Ševčík, editor of Hospodářské noviny’s supplement “IN”, who used to work as editor-in-chief of the two biggest dailies – Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny – says that things work the same way in other sectors. “It is not that unusual; we are learning as we go,” he says. “Lots of media now have their own codes of ethics that clearly define under which conditions a journalist can work with PR materials.” He adds that PR practices must also adjust according to how target groups are becoming “resistant” to their influence. In his opinion, the temptations may be too strong for some journalists, so it is up to the publishers to create conditions that prevent unethical behavior. The richer the publisher, the stricter the rules are, says Ševčík, while Maxim’s Vondráček puts it simply: “One way to protect the editorial team is by paying high salaries.”
Rick Butler is an American freelance writer who has worked not only in the US, but also in many European countries, including the Czech Republic. He points out that PR is essential for both industries and journalists, but says they must learn to coexist. “PR is about cultivating communication and getting access to information. That’s the key. Journalists need that access,” Butler opines, although he admits that responsibility for veracity comes down more to the journalists than the companies. He stresses that once companies learn better how to use PR, the market will become equitable.
Tkačík of Springer media also thinks it is up to the journalists to stay objective. “If the journalist is good, then even if he accepts an invitation from a company, let’s say for an all-expenses paid presentation trip, he will still remain objective,” he says. For better or worse, the level of ethical behavior in journalism typically mirrors the behavior of the society in which it operates. Painting a less than rosy picture of the local environment, Vondráček says that “there is no real threat that if the journalist behaves unethically he will ruin his career.”
On the other hand, Hrabovský believes that this is a “generational” issue. In the years to come, he says that improving business conditions will produce more “good” journalists and PR agents. The learning experience for both sides is now starting in the classrooms, at high schools and universities where ethics is an important part of curriculum. Interestingly, as the industry begins to show maturity, both PR and media professionals are getting younger and younger. Thus a more ethical environment for the fair exchange of information “will come with time,” according to Donath. “People will realize that doing business properly is better in the long-term,” he predicts.
What is PR?
Just as the business of PR has evolved in the Czech Republic over the years, so has its definition.
“If you go around Wenceslas Square and ask what is public relations, everybody will tell you something completely different,” says 14-year PR veteran, Michal Donath, managing director of Donath-Burson-Marsteller. He also believes the same will happen in many boardrooms around the country.
Money as motivation
With all of the controversy and criticism, why has PR become a choice destination for graduates?
“PR OFFERS A FAST-RISING well-paid career,” says Milan Hejl, managing partner of AMI Communications, summing up the reasons. His proof comes in the form of the weekly applications he receives from anxious candidates. Libor Ševčík, editor of Hospodářské noviny’s IN magazine, is even more cynical. “They have an easy life. Money is poured into this industry.”
To outsource or not to outsource?
Although outsourcing is considered inevitable in a firm’s so-called secondary activities, PR is one of these support areas which may suffer from it.
ACCORDING TO Judita Urbánková, PR manager in Prague’s Hilton hotel, the job is too complicated to outsource, and requires someone who is fully involved. Although Urbánková is in charge of both marketing and PR, she admits that “we are considering hiring an agency for the marketing part.” The reason for outsourcing marketing instead of PR is simple – a media agency can get lower prices for advertisements, and it is much easier to outsource.
APRA (Association of Public Relations Agencies) aims to raise the PR standard – both professionally and ethically – in the Czech Republic. But many firms, especially smaller ones, complain about stringent membership conditions. Indeed, with 24 members, APRA only covers about a fifth of the PR agencies operating here. But now there’s an alternative association.
MIKOLÁŠ ČERNÝ saw firsthand the closed-nature of APRA and felt that smaller firms should have a chance to belong to an organization. For nine years, Černý was director of Previa until he sold his share in 2004 to dedicate his time to PGM, a second firm he had started in 2003, which concentrates on crisis communication. After leaving Previa (and thus APRA), he helped to found Komora PR, a new association that started operations in October and already has 13 members with combined turnover of CZK 80 million. “One of the criticisms of APRA was that it was a closed association and had difficult conditions for accepting other agencies,” Černý says. “Therefore, when I was invited to help establish KoPR, I advanced a more open platform.”
The next generation
The last 15 years have been a learning experience for all parties connected to the PR game. Now a number of schools recognizing PR’s growing influence are teaching future (and current) professionals 21st century PR.
The biggest example of PR’s rising position in the marketplace can be found at Charles University. Starting this school year, the Faculty of Social Sciences is offering for the first time a bachelor’s degree in marketing communications and public relations. “The interest of applicants was huge,” says Jana Drdlová from the faculty. This program is just one more in a list of schools that have accepted their first students recently. In 2002, the University of International and Public Relations (VŠMVV) was accredited to offer three-year degrees. Currently, some 60 students are in the program with the first graduates expected in June 2005.