PR People Must Balance Consistent Message with Authenticity

    by Mark Glaser
    July 11, 2006

    i-36cf524a7c92c8ddc65d34daf2fe98ed-Renee Blodgett.jpg
    Public relations professionals and journalists often work together, and sometimes they even get along. The goal for the PR person is to represent their product or service well, and make sure it gets positive press coverage. The goal for the journalist is to write a balanced account of the company — not necessarily all positive or all negative.

    At times, these goals conflict and cause tension. For instance, PR people want executives at the company to stay “on message,” always expressing the official company line. A good journalist, however, does not want to write a story full of canned comments spoon-fed by PR people.

    That conflict reared its ugly head recently when the Broadcasting & Cable blog found that YouTube was recycling quotes for use in different situations. When asking YouTube about the popularity of World Cup videos on the site, B&C received a quote from YouTube senior director of marketing Julie Supan that was very similar to quotes given to me at MediaShift for a Q&A with YouTube CEO Chad Hurley that ran in April.


    Here’s B&C’s account of the similarities:

    What Supan said: “Users of YouTube have been documenting their firsthand accounts of world events ever since we started the service.”

    What Hurley said: “Users of YouTube have been documenting their first-hand accounts of world events ever since we started the service.”

    What Supan said: “We’ve seen these videos become popular, so it’s no surprise that user videos would help spread visibility for the World Cup.”

    What Hurley said: “We’ve seen videos of hurricanes and dangerous airplane landings become popular on the service, so it’s no surprise that soldiers in Iraq would actively document their lives and provide their perspective on one of the most important world events today.”

    Be it the World Cup or the war in Iraq, simply plug in your global event, and presto! — you’ve got a YouTube quote.

    There’s nothing technically wrong with this — attributing largely the same quotes to different people on different subjects — but it makes YouTube look silly. YouTube execs are obviously very busy, but if they want press coverage for their site, they’re going to have to do more than offer up canned quotes with a few words replaced depending on the context.

    Savvy marketers will have to expect that bloggers and journalists will ferret out these recycled quotes using Google and other online searches. That means PR people will have to give more live interviews, and loosen the adherence to company lines. One PR person (who preferred not to be named) told me that the B&C post does show the importance of rethinking issues rather than recycling quotes. “Or, better yet, getting journalist and company rep on the phone for a real live conversation!” Imagine that.


    The Company Line in a ‘Naked World’

    When I asked Supan to comment about the B&C post, she was upset that I was going to write about this subject at all. Supan said B&C was writing about the recycled quotes because they were angry they couldn’t get an interview with YouTube.

    “It’s not about how we as PR people write the quotes (you give us too much credit), it’s about what we are saying and these words still ring true no matter the event,” Supan said via email. “They will for years to come. We are not reporters, we are telling a story over and over that we want people to remember. It’s generally best to say things many times so they resonate over time. Just as people remember Google’s mottos or Microsoft’s visions, we want people to remember that ‘video is about seeing events through other people’s eyes.’”

    Fair enough. YouTube needs to explain its service to the uninitiated, and staying on message helps people to understand that. But if PR people want to work with journalists, then they have to consider how much the journalists are serving the public good by telling the same story over and over again in multiple media outlets. Wouldn’t we learn more by reading varied accounts about the company, with company representatives showing us more humanity and less spin?

    Renee Blodgett (pictured above) is one of the PR folks who understands how to communicate with bloggers — and even blogs herself. (While Blodgett represents VideoEgg, a competitor of YouTube, her comments about recycling quotes were more general in nature and not a critique of YouTube itself.)

    “I think that most companies still have consistent party line messages that everyone internally agrees to and is often the reason for more generic quotes that are used over and over again,” Blodgett told me. “The blogosphere is all about transparency and many blogs are more informal than traditional online media outlets have been in the past…This does in fact open up an opportunity for PR and marketing voices as well as CEOs to be a little more creative, and conversational in their responses. Is party-line still important though? You betcha.

    “What the social media world has created however is a more ‘naked world,’ so it’s increasingly important to be as authentic and transparent with all of your audiences, whether that be press, bloggers, or more importantly customers and partners. If you don’t have some consistency in your ‘voice’ however, it’s just too confusing for people to decipher what you do vis a vis everyone else, particularly in a really crowded space like digital video. Live interviews are always going to capture more spontaneous moments than email, where people have time to think about the ‘voice’ they want to put forward.”

    And there’s the dilemma for the PR folks. How do you balance the need for consistency and party lines with the more open and authentic nature of blogs and new media? You can repeat and repeat and repeat your message and stick your head in the sand, hoping people won’t notice. Or you can try to be authentic and speak to the audiences of interest in a way that they can connect to you and understand you in a new way.

    Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz has been lauded for the transparency and personal touch of his blog. But Dell Computer, whose poor customer service has been dubbed Dell Hell, was on the hot seat again for starting a blog that had no outgoing links. Dell listened and promised to be more open to critics.

    YouTube of all companies has a chance to do things differently. They could offer up video press releases with execs talking live about their world. They could create a forum for power users to discuss issues they have with the service. Maybe they could even hold an open house for top users to get their input.

    But what could they do for journalists? Maybe a web conference call allowing various journalists to ask questions in a press conference style. They could throw a Media Day at YouTube and let journalists in to meet the various folks who make the startup run. Anything open and honest would be a move in the right direction.

    And anything beats cut-and-paste versions of old answers and quotes from press releases.

    What do you think? Should companies be more spontaneous with reporters in interviews or should they stick with the company line? Do you see the jobs of PR people changing in this new media world? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


    Note: I’ll be heading off for a brief summer vacation the rest of this week. MIT professor and author Henry Jenkins will be guest blogging in my place this Thursday and Friday, which should be a treat. I’ll be back blogging next Monday.

    Tagged: advertising public relations
    • This is an excellent post, Mark. It’s so, so true — and as much of a Web 2.0 hipster as I try to be in my practice, I’m as guilty as anyone of this little crime. It really goes to a central fact about PR: that’s in many ways it’s the nexus between journalism and advertising.

    • John

      It is interesting that current political powerholders (inside the beltway) regurgitate “buzz phrases” (rationales) among selected spokespeople that get chanted daily via multiple media outlets.

      A program like “The Daily Show” may edit these exact-phrasings together (for comedic effect)(and eye-opening truth), but “staying on message” and re-purposing the same quotes and phrases SEEMS to be working politically.

      Most of the public is unaware and unconcerned.

      (I found the YouTube quotes to be similar…but not as flagrant as the political mantras I’m hearing repetitively. So I’m uncertain of the damage … even when B&C or blogs write about it]

    • Ann

      Mark, thanks for posting. This is hilarious. I can’t blame YouTube for wanting to stay on message. I work in public relations, so I know where they’re coming from.

      On the other hand, as a YouTube fan, I am surprised that the company isn’t willing to grant more interviews with their top execs. The wonderful thing about YouTube is its spontanaity and yet it would seem they don’t trust their execs to have an unscripted conversation with a journalist.

      In general, I think PR professionals must feel comfortable with the folks they represent. They must trust them to talk to journalists. In return, journalists have a duty to report a fair and balanced story. This is not always the case though, especially where coverage of media is concerned. And I think that’s when PR professionals become overprotective of their clients.

    • BP

      The aticle ignorant, arrogant and completly ignores the media’s complicity in the reaction of PR people.

      First, every first year communications profesional knows the statistics on how much information people can retain. If you want customers to remember your product you have to, at the very least, repeatedly get them to look at it. Whether it’s branding, buying commercial time, or using the same phrases in a number of different media outlets, people have to see it and hear it again, and again, and again. The average is about 7 times/minute if you want them to walk away thinking about what you said.

      Second, if you don’t like it, then YOU fix it. PR professionals aren’t supposed to write your stories. They are employed to market their clients and not responsible for making your story better. If you don’t want to use the quote, then don’t. PR pros will recognize that their canned quotes aren’t being printed and adapt.

      Third, the reason why canned quotes are even used is because reporters are actively looking to make news – and that generally means embarrasing or provacotive headlines. Candid “live” interviews are uncommon and unwise because – believe it or not – CEOs and business profesionals, often times, aren’t the best communicators. Like most people, they stumble over words, misuse language, and say things that could be misconstrued in a different context. Reporters, obviously, love that. So businesses employ PR professionals to do their talking for them (or write canned quotes) to avoid the mishaps. Responsible reporting could go a long way in fixing the tension.

      Canned quotes are extremely valuable for all the reasons this articles mentions. If everyone in the company is on message the PR pro is doing their job.

    • Is it just me, or is this herring extremely RED? Of course the quotes are similar. Two people working for the same company, describing the value proposition of their service in a consistent way. I would be shocked and surprised if they did not sound similar.

      It sounds to me like Broadcast & Cable is just pouting because YouTube is neither broadcast nor cable, yet is stealing all their buzz. And then won’t even grant them an interview! So B&C decides to scribble “YouTube Sucks” on the proverbial bathroom wall. And this is the best they could come up with?

      I agree that YouTube could think outside the PR box more (couldn’t most companies?). I love the idea of YouTube posting PR videos on YouTube. It’s wonderfully illustrative of what YouTube is all about. But B&C is just blowing smoke here.

      Thanks for taking their article and leveraging it into a conversation about something relevant. That kind of attitude is why I read MediaShift.

    • lauren

      great post. is it scarier when you’re talking about a government and not a corporation though, or just par for the course?

    • Lori

      As someone who was an undergraduate journalism and media studies major but who made a career out of public relations, I couldn’t agree more with the comment: “Responsible reporting could go a long way in fixing the tension.”

      Sensational journalism is irresponsible, but unfortunately it is what sells in this day and age. It’s all about who owns the media, either directly or by way of advertising. The mantra seems to be: Give the “shareholders” what they want — readers/viewers/listeners who are potential consumers.

      But if journalists were more ethical and reported more accurately what people say, and do not contrive sound bites or report quotes out of context, then this would not be as big an issue. “PR people” would be more agreeable to live interviews because the fear of embarassment/reputation damage would not be there.

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