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Future of the Field: New PRSA Chair Shares Plans, Stares Down Challenges for 2008

Brian Pittman’s spotlight this week: Jeff Julin, APR, 2008 Chair Elect and CEO, PRSA


“The future for public relations is bright. There is finally recognition among smart organizations that relationship building and relationship management are critical to their success. That’s what this industry is all about. It’s not just the tactics that we’re all capable of,” says Jeffrey Julin, APR, president of Denver-based MGA Communications and 2008 chair-elect/CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

“Instead, it’s about strategically communicating with and not at our various audiences. It’s about engagement,” he says. “I think Web 2.0 or ‘social media’ technologies certainly have accelerated this recognition,” adds Julin, who has been a PRSA national board member since 2002, and whose 30 years’ experience in communications includes work for such clients as BP, Shell, Pfizer and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “And I think that the whole new media area is a definite hotbed of opportunity for public relations.”

However, he also thinks all businesses—regardless of industry—face considerable challenges in the months and year ahead: “I’m not an economic expert, but the indicators aren’t great. In leaner times, companies trimmed back on relationship building activities,” recalls Julin. “I hope that doesn’t happen moving forward, because it’s even more important to build relationships and communicate effectively with your various audiences in down times,” he says.

Upshot: “I think a big focus for public relations people in the year ahead will be communicating their value and reminding companies and clients of these things. PRSA is here to help in this—a big part of our mission is precisely that,” Julin says. “Specifically, our advocacy program is geared to promoting the idea of public relations and helping members and the business community understand what it is and its valuable contributions. This has been in place for four or five years now. We’ll be even more active in this in the year ahead,” he assures.

More on Julin and PRSA’s plans for 2008, along with answers to some pointed questions regarding the true value of the APR designation and other hot buttons:

What are you bringing to PRSA as its new chair?

One of the most important skills a leader brings—whether that be as president or chair or what have you of any organization—is the ability to facilitate all that brainpower and move things forward. This certainly is part of my current job and that’s one dimension of what I bring to the table. Also, one of the things a chair does is to help lead the community—and one of my areas of expertise is community engagement. So I’ll be looking at how to advance the engagement we already have with members—both from a real and virtual perspective.

Related to this is that I view public relations as the big umbrella. But there is a disconnect out there when it comes to the term, “public relations.” It means different things to different people. Strategic communications, marketing, advertising, integrated marketing, community relations, crisis communications—those are all pieces and parts of public relations, from my perspective.

But in the business community, they think “public relations” and “PR” is all about media, publicity and special events. They have a limited scope of what it is. So I will focus on addressing that in this role because our contribution, as I already said, to business is great. I am here to help get that message out—to help businesses understand the power of PR as a strategic discipline and not just a bunch of tactics.

What other key initiatives can we expect from PRSA in the year ahead?

I don’t believe a leader comes in and says, “Gosh, here’s a bunch of stuff I want to do to make PRSA different.” Instead, you build on what’s there, what’s going well and what the organization wants to accomplish. That said, one of my tasks this year was to lead the strategic planning process. We are coming to the end of our current three-year plan. So now we’re doing a strategic plan for the next three years, in addition to our operations plan for 2008. While the strategic plan is an overview, some key elements will include:

• Community building: We recognize the member relationship with PRSA is changing in large part because of Web 2.0. Simply put, there is a tech opportunity now we want to take advantage of to build more connectivity with members. For example, we’re looking at a new and reworked website. We’re even looking at the LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook models as examples of using technology to build community in a way that is respectful and appropriate for our members, versus just building a new Facebook. We’re also focusing on offline ways to build engagement.

• Member research: This coming year will be a year of further assessment and building in terms of increasing our level of service and value to members. We’ll be conducting significant research into member needs. We do member research every two or three years—and we’re going to do so in an even more in-depth fashion now. Under this area, we’re also going to be researching member needs tied to our professional development programs, which we’ll be re-evaluating both from a content and delivery standpoint.

• Operational governance: I am not by nature a process person—but I realize you need the right structure and procedures in place to be smart, nimble and flexible in a changing world. We want to rework and rewrite our bylaws so they are very clear and reflective of the organization today. They were written years ago, after all. It’s time to make sure our policies, procedures, processes and bylaws are clear and current. Otherwise, they aren’t the foundation we need.

• Increased advocacy: As mentioned a few times, we will continue to build our advocacy efforts geared toward promoting the idea of PR and its contributions. This has been in place for four or five years—and we’ve done a lot of reactive things. This year it’s more active. For example, we’re establishing a relationship with the State Department where we’re basically sharing our POV about PR and diplomacy and creating a better understanding of what America is about globally using communications so we can advance the positive aspects of America. That’s just one facet of this.

Another is advocating our code of ethics. I have a lot of experience in this. I was a member of our board of ethics and professional standards team that wrote the code in 2000. The code actually lives in our advocacy efforts. It really is the foundation of how we comment to the world at large, either from reactive or proactive standpoint. For example, we commented on the FEMA situation this year with the code as a touchstone. Other examples include commenting on the Armstrong Williams circumstance, testimony on the VNR issue and so on. Members are looking for this type of advocacy, both nationally and at the chapter level. But we’re also going to make sure that individual PRSA members are a part of this advocacy effort when talking to community and business leaders in their areas.

What will PRSA do to engage membership among the new generation of practitioners?

For starters, we’ll offer professional development that is cutting edge. We need to share content that is useful, helpful and relevant to these and prospective members. We also need to let them be a part of creating that content. Mentoring is a big part of what we do and offer. What is different now is that mentoring isn’t only old-to-young anymore. These days, younger practitioners have a great deal to teach our veterans. That is what community is all about—so we will facilitate this.

What is your response to those who claim PRSA accreditation is largely irrelevant?

They’re wrong. Professional development is always relevant, and the accreditation program is a key part of our professional development efforts. There is a test component to it, as well as a certification aspect—but it’s largely the process that is most valuable. So, my response is: Do accreditation for you. The process is significant in helping you understand where you are professionally, and what you need to concentrate on as related to the fundamentals in public relations.

Accreditation critics suggest it’s not valuable to senior practitioners—your response?

Well, we certainly encourage people at two years of experience to get into it. It’s about the fundamentals of the practice. But if the question is, “Why should a senior level PR person do it if they’re already successful?”—then I would say it helps them gauge where they are. Also, many in PR come to it from different communication backgrounds. So this helps you test where you are and pinpoint areas of weakness. My view, again, is this: Do it for yourself. The rewards for APR are real and concrete.
It’s a worthy process. It’s recognized in our industry, particularly among PRSA members—and as such, can be a powerful tool for career growth.

But is APR recognized by business leaders beyond PR?

It depends on how much exposure they’ve had to PRSA. Overall, though, I think it’s increasingly being recognized outside public relations.

Is there anything in the PRSA plan for 2008 designed to help communicate APR’s value to the business community at large?

That would be integrated into part of our advocacy program. In that context, we’ll have the opportunity to talk about professional development for PR people and the importance of measuring where practitioners are in their development. Our code addresses the importance of continuing to improve and strive for excellence. Professional development, learning, testing where you stand, and accreditation are all essential parts of that.

What do you say to claims the PRSA code has no teeth when it comes to enforcement?

The enforcement process was included in the old code before 2000. Members could send a letter to the chair of the board and say they observed an ethical lapse. We could send note to person and ask for comment. Then letters would ensue and attorneys would get involved. The board would investigate the accusation and then we would determine whether to terminate person’s membership. It didn’t really work very well. An association of members has little ability to take to task individuals, because you have no legal standing with which to take a position and understand the whole story.

So we realized we were spending all our time looking for bad behavior versus modeling good behavior. As a result, we took out “what not to do” and focused instead on good behavior. Now, our code is about defining ethical and good practices in PR. That is its purpose. This shift also gave the board of ethics and professional standards a new reason to exist. We weren’t enforcers anymore. We could spend our time and energy on being educators—which is far more productive for members and for the industry as a whole. Simply put, it’s far more appropriate for that body to help members understand what ethics are and how to live them.

I am excited about becoming chair next year, but being part of rewriting that code certainly was one of highlights of my time in PRSA. It enabled me to learn so much about ethics in PR and how I felt about it. In the past, it was always cerebral and philosophic. But ethics isn’t that big thing that might happen to you one day—it happens every day. It’s about practicing honestly and truthfully. So, we need to talk about it, model it, share case studies and advocate for it. To be a part of that new direction for PRSA was incredibly exciting and liberating.

Fair enough—who seems to be doing a great job practicing ethical PR?

If you look at companies embracing the full intent of CSR—well, that’s ethics in action. The full range of corporate responsibility recognizes the impacts of business behaviors on community, environment and employees. It’s about action—and not just messaging. It’s demonstrated, not spoken. The messaging has to be connected to the authenticity of the actions, and tied to stakeholder expectations. CSR at its best gets that. It’s a name thing again, but CSR really is PR at its best. It’s where messaging and actions align.

So who is doing a good job at aligning messaging with actions through CSR?

I think BP has had some problems in the past with this, but they are working on this area now. I also think some of the things Shell has done in advancing CSR globally might serve as a good model. Chevron, too. These are oil and gas companies. People have different thoughts about them—and I have to say I’ve done work for them—but they are demonstrating that it’s a new day for business. I also think GE is doing good work in this. Wal-Mart also seems to be doing some things that are changing the dynamic of way they do business and what they communicate to stakeholders. Overall, this is an encouraging area and a lot of businesses are moving in the right direction. Now is a great time for public relations to be a part of this movement, and even to help lead it.

Is PRSA an old-boys’ club?

Why do you ask? No. It’s not. Our membership is probably over 69% women. Leadership-wise, we’ve had a woman chair/president in four out the six years I’ve been on the board. We had two male presidents in that time. Our board’s mix is also very well balanced. Our commitment in terms of its leadership is to be mindful of the diversity and our membership and to reflect that. It’s a balance.

Overall, PR is not an old-boy profession now. In the past, yes, the business was about men. But PR has far more women it now than other business industries. We’re reflecting that as an organization, so this is a non question.

What do you love about this work—why do you do it?

I love public relations because I love people. For some people, that’s anathema to professionalism. But it’s also a really good indicator that you’d be good at PR: If you love human nature and want to work with others using communications skills in business, government or even non-profits, then this is a field for you. I also think the work is exciting. There’s something new every day.

In terms of what we’re doing at PRSA, I really believe in the work we’re doing with State Department, which involves diplomacy and governmental interactions. Basically, PR has the ability and power to affect quality of life in a big way across countries, cultures and communities. Our role isn’t just to send out information, but to help people understand each other and find a common ground for solutions. That’s really exciting work to do.

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you—how does it influence your work?

My majors in college were communications and theater. Theater has been more helpful to me as a PR professional and consultant than you might think. It’s not about putting on a show or act. It’s about having the confidence to present yourself or what you’re representing clearly and in a compelling way. It’s also bout the dynamics of the human story and how it plays out in life—conflict, drama, character. Those are the elements of the human condition and the elements of the stories we tell about our clients or companies. Basically, I see theater as the celebration of humanity from an observation standpoint. PR is actually living that celebration.

As for how that may relate to what I’m doing with PRSA, I can only say that next year is about leveraging the success we’ve had so far—and showing that we’re here for our members in a very changing world. We’re here to help advance their careers and communicate the value of this work. That’s why we exist.

Let’s shift gears: What was your reaction to Chris Anderson’s “Lazy Flacks” post last month—how does that relate to the value of PR your were talking about?

I was saying that pitches and publicity are just a tactic PR people use. Because people misuse publicity, are they misusing PR? I would say that PR is about relationships, and you’re not building good relationships with your audiences if you’re not targeting them. So communicators need to rethink how they’re engaging their various audiences—and they need to do so in a way they want to be engaged.

Overall, this is another nomenclature issue: People don’t normally talk about “publicity.” They talk about PR. But I almost never use the word PR. It’s connected with “spin” and things like “PR stunts.”

What do you use instead?

I talk about public relations—with a triple underscored emphasis on “relations.” That’s our true value and it reaches well beyond the tactical things journalists complain about like bad pitches.

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