PR Critical Issues Forum

The Yale Club in New York City was buzzing today with a packed room of buzz agencies, or rather, members of the PR agency trade association The Council of PR Firms.

Scoping the table tent cards, most of the big marquee firms were on hand including Ketchum, Weber Shandwick, APCO, Fleishman Hillard, Porter Novelli, Burson-Marsteller, Wagoner Edstrom, Hill and Knowlton, as well as other industry comers including Peppercom, Coyne PR, The Horn Group, Text 100, Cooper Katz and too many more to recount here.

Council executive director Kathy Cripps and chairman Ray Kotcher of Ketchum have made the “Critical Issues Forum” an annual and always thought-provoking event. Today opened with a video that asked the simple question: “What is the Most Dangerous Idea in Public Relations Today?”

It went on from there. Ketchum prexy Rob Flaherty kicked things off by introducing John Hancock CEO Dave D’Alessandro who proudly shared his roots in PR (agency and corporate). He then offered a very astute assessment of the paradigm shift in media consumption habits and the affect it’s having on the PR biz:

“Traditional media are feeders, stringers. [They] no longer lead the pack. [They] are no longer the end game… there’s a good case to be made that social media sites and YouTube are today the dominant media…”

D’Alessandro believed that the opportunities for the industry are vast, e.g., “this territory is completely up for grabs.” The floor as soon opened to questions. Ketchum CEO Kotcher and B-M prexy Pat Ford took first dibs on questions with Ford asking how D’Alessandro would go about rebuilding reputations in the financial services sector.

After calling the executives of these firms “arrogant” and “unethical” for putting their respective enterprises at such risk (worthy of “jail time“), D’Alessandro advised Wall Street’s surviving firms to work hard to “assure the public that their money is no longer at risk.”

The event then moved on to an eclectic panel that featured Weber Shandwick CEO Harris Diamond, Siemens corp. affairs and marketing chief Jack Bergen, head of corp. comms. for Macy’s Jim Sluzewski, and former GM communications chief and now consultant to F-H John Onodo. The effusive president of Babson College Len Schlesinger moderated.

Schlesinger threw a series of questions to the panel, the net take-way of which had Harris Diamond seeing the industry as a glass half-full with buoyant prospects ahead:

“…the proliferation of all these new media platforms is a wonderful place to be… this is a great time for PR…”

Onodo, on the other hand, saw it as half empty with limited prospects (absent significant changed behaviors):

“…if I don’t see a radical readjustment, you might still be large, but largely irrelevant… The PR industry could be gone in a minute. GM sat in this position ten years ago, and now look at them.”

John Hancock CEO Dave D’Alessandro seemed to share Diamond’s positive outlook by observing:

“The world has presented the PR industry a grand piano with a full scale of keys, and a fantastic opportunity to play.”

Finally, the Wall Street Journal’s Suzanne Vranica put Kodak’s chief marketing officer Jeff Hayzlett on the hot seat, but the folksy Hayzlett (who’s originally from South Dakota) quickly disarmed Vranica’s staccato probes. Some of his notable quotables included:

  • On cutting back: “I don’t need three PR agency staffers accompanying me to a Fox TV interview.”
  • On selecting agencies: “What is your promise to me? What will you deliver?”
  • On PR metrics: “Just give me two tablets with five bullets on each.”
  • On the agency’s promise: “Agencies spend too much time saying what they’ve been doing, not what they’re going to get done.”
  • On the economy: “To quote my new friend Jim Cramer, this is like waking up the morning after a frat party.”
  • Biggest “bonehead” viral video: “The Extended Stay Hotels viral campaign that shows an attractive woman licking things in a hotel room to show how clean the room is.”
  • On marketing through social media:
    — “Just because the kid is good at online, does not make him a good marketer.”
    — “You may be good at getting noticed, but you may not have any practical knowledge about marketing. “
    — “The day my CEO gets an avatar is the day I go on Second Life.”
    — “I’ll twitter or yammer every five seconds if it gets me more sales.”