“In a world where we don’t have a belief in a single source, you don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore. P.R. is the discipline on the rise,” said Richard W. Edelman, president and chief executive of the public-relations firm Edelman.
“P.R.,” he said, “plays much better in a world that lacks trust.”
The salt-and-pepper-haired C.E.O. stood in a tuxedo in Tavern on the Green, basking in the admiration of a thousand publicists swirling around him. They had stepped from behind the scenes and into the public eye on March 2 to celebrate one another at the Pubbies, or Spinnies, or whatever you want to call PR Week’s annual public-relations awards.
And the world must be short on trust, because public relations is long on profits. According to Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a private equity firm that analyzes media trends, the industry was estimated to be worth $3.4 billion in 2004 and is expected to increase at an impressive annual clip of up to 10 percent, reaching $5.2 billion by 2009. Other industry journals, like O’Dwyer’s PR Report, consider such estimates conservative.
“It used to be I would schmooze you and I was your flack,” said Mr. Edelman, whose firm netted about $260 million in 2005. “Today, if we want to get a message into the public’s conversation, we just make a post on a blog. If The Wall Street Journal goes after a client, we don’t have to accept that anymore. Let’s post the documents we gave The Journal; let’s show the interviews the newspaper decided not to show.
“You’re not God anymore,” he said.
Mr. Edelman—and he is not alone—believes that the erosion of the public’s trust in bedrock institutions after scandals in government, big business and the press only contributes to the industry’s success. Without anyone holding a monopoly on truth, the argument goes, P.R. people can get their messages across without pesky filters like, say, the news media.
Some executives suggest that the press never had control to begin with.
“The role of public-relations people is to act as the gatekeepers for news and information,” said Andy Plesser, who runs Plesser Holland Associates, the company that handled the public relations for the public-relations awards. “Many journalists want to believe they are being enterprising on their own.”
Presumptuous? Maybe. But consider the publicist’s perspective: They are incessantly reading and watching stories that they remember pitching to reporters only days before. Still, most any self-respecting journalist will bristle at the mere suggestion of dependence.
“I respectfully disagree,” said Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a business anchor on CNBC, who sat next to her friend, Mr. Plesser. “I come across my own stories.”
Under a heated white tent, nominees for the coveted PR Week magazine awards were seated around 97 tables arranged on a black Astroturf floor. Winners jumped out of their chairs, hugged their partners and waved white cloth napkins over their heads. After each winner was announced, stereos played electric-guitar chords and a strobe light flecked the pearly white smiles in violet and silver. Onstage, statuesque women handed out heavy statuettes in the shape of the letters P and R.
Between bites of truffle polenta, the P.R. people talked about getting along completely without the newspaper print and television broadcasts that have for decades been the time and space within which the industry has operated. Thanks to the Internet, the conversation is now about on-message self-sufficiency, and many of the people participating were one-time students or practitioners of journalism who had crossed over for more lucrative jobs in P.R.
“The dark side!” joked Laurie Mayers, 47, a senior vice president at Hass MS&L and a former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. “A lot of people in journalism think that they have a sacred mission. They think the poor pay and crummy hours are part of it.
“Basically, what we’re doing is helping a company tell its story,” Ms. Mayers said. She won the award for P.R. Innovation of the Year, for using blogs to promote General Motors.
The breadth of the awards handed out for campaigns spanning everything from public affairs to the corporate and nonprofit sectors served as a reminder of the long reach of image manipulation. Healthcare Campaign of the Year went to a campaign called “Showing People With Overactive Bladder Where to Stop When They Need to Go.” The Public Sector Campaign of the Year honored Drive Smart Virginia and the Virginia State Police: “Click It or Ticket, Big Rigs.”
The Crisis/Issues Management Campaign—for which Ketchum earned an honorable mention for its damage control in the Wendy’s severed-finger-in-the-chili-hoax debacle (they had free-Frosties days!)—went to the P.R. department of Entergy Corporation, which highlighted its stock-price-saving success in delivering electricity during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The reading of these awards infused the air inside the tent with as much suspense as any other awards ceremony.
“We’re shocked!” screamed Courtney Megliola, 29, jumping up and down in her floral-print frock after her company won for Arts, Entertainment & Media Campaign of the Year. “We’re like the little indie film that nobody has seen that wins at the Oscars.”
Instead, spirits sunk at table 78, where clinking glasses of red wine helped to numb a loss in Healthcare Campaign of the Year. The table’s leader, Douglas Stroup, a senior vice president of corporate branding at the P.R. giant Ruder Finn, tried to boost morale.
“It’s always exciting to be considered amid the best campaigns in the business,” said Mr. Stroup, who campaigned with Cybill Shepherd to help raise awareness about irritable-bowel syndrome. “We are proud of what we achieved as an agency. When Cybill was doing Moonlighting, she was doubling over in pain.”
So even in the corporate world of Fortune 500 P.R., a little celebrity luster goes a long way. Some younger women at the event confessed that their real motivation for getting into the business was to work with famous people.
“I wish I was a publicist for a celebrity,” whispered Carolyn Krehel, a 25-year-old blond account executive for Coyne who kept catching the black strap of her dress from slipping off her shoulder. Ms. Krehel, who said that her team’s Chunky Soup campaign “blew Campbell’s away this year,” graduated with both an undergraduate and master’s degree in P.R. The graduate degree focused more on the “nitty-gritty” details, she said, like the art of pitching reporters.
But not everyone shared Ms. Krehel’s enthusiasm for celebrity publicists. Some executives at Tavern on the Green—both under the tent and, later, sipping cocktails and dancing under the chandeliers and plasterwork in the restaurant’s Crystal Room—said they looked at Lizzie Grubman’s ilk as the grubby stepsister of their more dignified breed. A common refrain was that celebrity publicists are paid to cover things up, while corporate P.R. is employed to spread the good word.
“It’s never going to be a publicist’s world,” said Kim Sample, a partner and associate director at Ketchum. “There are so many negative perceptions of what we do—and so many people who don’t do it well.”
But, with folding newspapers feeding the industry with journalists, and with universities offering P.R. degrees for an ever more media-savvy student body, won’t that change?
Tara Burnham, a 21-year-old P.R. major at Penn State University, won Student of the Year for a mock campaign for Royal Caribbean Cruise lines. She had to pitch a reporter from Fortune magazine and deal with a crisis scenario in which a ship hit a 60-foot whale.
“I said we should be as straightforward as possible, because whatever we hide is going to get us in the future,” said Ms. Burnham, dialing her fiancé with news of her big win. “People would trust us more in the future if we told the truth.”