We can learn a lot from the PR industry.  For example: be very careful about your declarations. It is risky and oftentimes false to declare that something has never and could never happen. PR professionals do more than crisis management and issuing press releases! They also manage investor relations, internal corporate communications, speech writing, and social media. After listening to this episode of Talk About Talk, you will be a savvier consumer of marketplace communication.

References & Links

Graeme Harris

Cause or Purpose-Driven Marketing –

PR Industry & Crisis Management

PR Industry vs. Marketing

PR as Spin


Interview Transcript

Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Welcome, Graham, and thank you so much for joining us.

Graeme Harris: It’s a pleasure to be here.

AW: Let me start with a confession. as a marketer myself, I have noticed that a lot of people assume that PR is a subset of marketing, and therefore, as a marketer, I should know what PR is, and I should be able to do it. The truth is, I’ve never really done PR, and I don’t know much more than the basics. So, Graham, Now’s my chance to learn. Can you define PR, please and tell us specifically how it’s different from a typical marketing function in an organization?

GH: Sure, I mean, PR, public relations, or it’s called public affairs, or it’s called corporate communications. And it’s often perceived as a form of marketing because it promotes the brands and products of the company. But that is only part of the role. It’s called public relations because it deals with publics or stakeholders, it’s not dealing strictly with customers, which is what Marketing does.

AW: right.

GH: So, you know, properly designed PR also includes internal communication so that internal and external communications are aligned. And I’ve always said that external communications is internal communications because your employees read the news or participate in social media.

AW: I agree. I agree. 100%. When everything’s integrated, it works better. And it’s easier to keep track of the facts when they’re all consistent.

GH: Right.

AW: So, let me just interject one other question. Is it perhaps more true that marketing is a subset of PR? It could be been in companies where marketing was part of the PR department?

GH: Okay. I think that marketing really is more like a subset of the business I mean, really good marketing is directly connected to the business and public relations is a client of the business but serves the corporation and usually ends up reporting to the CEO or to the C suite whereas Marketing tends to report through to businesses and part of the executive branch, if you will. Public relations also deals with the reputation issues that affect the company. So when it you’re, you’re dealing with the reputation issues of a company, and they’re very near-and-dear to the C suite, because, you know, I realize all throughout my career that if I say something wrong in the media, and it gets published, I could knock $2 off the stock and that’s not something that marketing can do. An ad campaign that may have gone awry, can be pulled quickly and then it’s PR that issues the apology, not marketing.

Quote from PR Industry expert Graeme Harris

AW: So, I feel like both marketing and PR have many stakeholders, but marketing is really focused much more on the end customer consumer. Of course, all the other stakeholders matter, but I guess marketing’s job is to derive customer insights, then leverage them, hopefully, within the organization. And then stimulate demand externally with them.

GH: Exactly.

AW: Which seems a lot more focused. Now that I’m thinking about it that way. It’s incredibly focused , versus PR, which is dealing with all of the internal and external stakeholders.

GH: Yep.

AW: Wow. I honestly had not thought of that.

GH: Yeah. And that’s what it does. And that’s why PR can be more powerful than marketing. Because we actually create third party advocates in the media and through the media. And a positive story in a major media can generate more awareness and sales than a marketing campaign. In some cases.

AW: Well, I would say the same thing about marketing, right? You could have celebrity endorsers that are paid, and then again, if they’re not paid, then they have even bigger impact. And they can also drive share price up right?

GH: But they would only be speaking on your behalf if they were paid by you guys. You rarely got a celebrity who wasn’t paid by you and part of marketing campaign.

AW: There are many examples where celebrities have you know, even Oprah has! Without having the company send her the thing and certainly without them paying her . She will endorse things just because she believes they’re fantastic and she wants people to read them or consume them.

GH: Right. And this becomes a bone of contention if you will, is that was that because of your marketing was that because you PR that Oprah decided to be an advocate for your product.

AW: Everybody wants to take everyone wants to take credit

GH: It’s sort of like it it’s the thing with marketing always. It is much more precise and being able to measure the impact of what it does versus PR. So from that point of view, job security. It just wants to show the value of what it is that we do. Also essentially, other than expenses, PR is free. …, but I’m saying it’s a wash because marking as executives PR executives, okay, if you take out the fixed costs? What does it cost to do a PR campaign versus a marketing campaign? And a marketing campaign has as a lot of built-in costs.

AW: That’s right, with your media, etc. creative and advertising buys all of that. Right? versus PR.

GH: I just sent I sent out a news release and make some phone calls.

AW: But even with the internet now, then a lot of marketing moving online, I guess that still is true, because there’s still the development of the program, and even the purchasing of online ads.

GH: It’s come down in cost, marketing for sure. And it’s way more precise. I mean, markings come a long way. And you know, PR is also more an art than a science. And that’s where the metrics are difficult. Because you know, too many CEOs don’t grasp PR because they’re probably interested in things they can control. CEOs don’t like media because they don’t see the company through the same rose-colored glasses and therefore negative coverage is seen as destroying shareholder value. To me negative stories tend to illustrate that the company’s not effectively telling that story –or where the company is failing their stakeholders. PR can analyze this and inform companies to make better decisions and improve their strategies.

AW: Okay, so said another way, when something unfortunate happens, not necessarily a crisis, but something that is regrettable on behalf of the organization, is that what you’re talking about?

GH: Let’s go back to a good example. United Airlines breaks guitars. I don’t know if you remember that fiasco very well.

AW: Yes, I remember. I will put a link to that up in the show notes

GH: That’s an example of an incident of customer service against one customer. They broke his guitar.  After they promised him profusely that it be taken care of –no worries — they broke his guitar. Basically they did not provide satisfaction. So, he decided to do a video that went viral.  It was a little song they sang . And they sent in marketing and PR cleaned it up.

AW: Okay. So, they’re the ones that come to the rescue.

GH: They’re the ones that fix the messes.

AW: Yeah, but marketing didn’t cause the issue either.

GH: No, I feel like marketing, it’s the business. It’s the business. So, I’m not saying marketing caused the problem. I’m saying that they couldn’t fix it.

AW: Right, unless they went and did an ad campaign, which they eventually do. But the immediate triage is done by PR. And then later marketing comes in to address the issue on a broader consumer focus basis to sort of like, you know, try to undo that damage. To say, we’ve heard you, we’re changing, watch. Watch us now. So, let’s go back to metrics just a little bit before we move into crises because there’s so many fantastic stories that we can talk about and analyze in recent and far back in history. But what are the metrics that the most successful PR managers are nailing?

GH: The traditional one was, how many places did your story appear? So how many media outlets did it appear? The idea there is that you can’t draw that direct conclusion that you saw that everyone read the G&M that day, read your story, saw your brand mentioned and took away from it. And so that’s why real metrics are difficult. Today, when someone clicks on a banner ad, that’s an eyeball, and then you can follow the clicks and see if it ends up on a click on a sale.

AW: So, when most of marketing was offline marketing it the same challenges in terms of measuring its reach, right?

GH: Yeah, as PR did.

AW: But now that more advertising is online. And we’re talking paid for explicit advertising, right? You’re right. It is much easier with the exception I think, of videos, and advertising that happens within shows that are online. They’re streaming online. Because people are often fast-forwarding through the videos, but that’s an aside, right?

GH: Yeah. What I also thought about that, too, I’m saying that even if, when I’m fast forwarding, I’m seeing the brand.

AW: That’s true. It’s almost subliminal that because as I’m zooming through the brand, I see it right?

GH: Could be.  I don’t know why they don’t–why Marketers or advertisers don’t design their ads so that when people do fast forward, the brand just comes through better?

AW: Oh, that’s a fantastic idea. Can you imagine if there was like, watch it slow, and then watch it fast?

GH: Yeah.

AW: You’re fully engaging with the medium and the brand? Yeah, love it. Yeah, we could sell that idea. Look what happens when PR and marketing work together!?!

GH: Yeah. And I think that PR and marketing have to be aligned, because in many respects, the process is: the business comes up with a product. And then it’s marketing who comes to figure out the campaign to sell it and then PR is brought in. They say, Okay, I’m going to look at the campaign and look at the product and go figure how to sell it from a PR perspective, but then I will use elements of marketing. What do they say? Well, we want to highlight this, this-and-this about the product, because we think those are the selling points where the people develop the product…

AW: That reminds me of a project that I was working on starting about 10 years ago, which I still have thought about, in the back of my mind. I think, I think there are some legs to this. I called it meta marketing. And the idea was “marketing about marketing.” So, you create a campaign, whether it’s new-fangled, like this, potentially, this fast-forwarding for online streaming, or whatever it is, and then you have, I called it “marketing about the marketing.” But it could be PR about the marketing story. So you get a double whammy.

GH: And there are many examples.

AW: An easy one to get your head around would be Super Bowl ads, right? Because there’s the ad but then there’s all the hoopla about the ad.

GH: And that’s really PR. Yes. And if there’s very little news value in the product because we’re late-to-market or last-to-market, but the campaign is kind of neat. I would definitely use Strategy Magazine to promote the campaign, to say this is what we’re doing with this product. And because if it was good creative, then they’ll cover it. Even though the product is last to market.

AW: Brilliant. Brilliant. You find a story somewhere.

GH: That’s our job.

AW: So do you have anything to say about newsworthiness?

GH: What you pitch as a PR person is your credibility because you’re going to be dealing with the same set of people for certain period of time. If you send them stuff that they’re not interested-in, they’re going to stop taking your calls. …  You lose a ton of credibility. I have many fights with the businesses about, you know, the newsworthiness of what they want us to promote. We are  last to market. It’s inferior to other offerings out there, and we’re just going to damage our credibility by trying to say that this is the best thing since sliced bread. So we shouldn’t say it. There needs to be a different story.

AW: Yeah, if anything at all.

GH: Yeah. PR should be at the strategy and business development table. So that when they’re saying, we got this product, and I can say, you’re last-to-market, it’s inferior to what’s out there, can you at least put some feature in there that I can hang my hat on?

AW: Right.

GH: And marketing is usually onside with that too, because, you know, they still want to be able to promote something that is better than what’s out there.

AW: I think that definitely applies to marketing. So, we touched on this a little bit, but I’m curious how you would answer this question. When times are good, what do effective PR managers do?

GH: Well, typically, we’re building relationships and constantly telling the company’s story to build brand awareness and reputation factors. So, you know, we’re scanners and that’s why a lot of PR departments are the one who are running social now.

AW: So, they’re scanning for trends or changes in in the valence of the general feedback that they’re getting, or the input I guess that they’re getting across?

GH: Yep. various social media platforms. Yep.

AW: And so that’s what good PR managers are doing. When times are good, they are the ones that are watching to see if something is going off the rails and try to stop it before it happens, right?

GH: At the same time, I’m forming the stories. Yeah, I’m telling the stories and looking at new ways to tell stories because business is stationary. If they are, they won’t last for long. So, new developments, new appointments of executives, new boards of directors, and then there’s the constant cyclical stuff like earnings that we do as well. So, we constantly have the cyclical things that are always repeating themselves. And then new product announcements, new changes and enhancements.

AW: So it’s both reactive and proactive.

GH: Correct. Yeah.

AW: Can you tell us about a favorite campaign that you either designed or were involved in?

GH: Mm hmm. I’ll try to do one that sort of is strategic. Everything I did – I always developed a strategy first and then  thought about the best tactics to come out of it. So, one good example was when I was at Manulife. The company was modernizing life insurance, because they’re actually using AI and big data to actually do things. The actuaries would spend days in windowless rooms, crunching numbers to come up with stuff. So we were looking at this modernizing of insurance. And this included things such as no longer need a physical or providing fluids to get life insurance. So this basically became the ability to underwrite people with HIV because it was considered a chronic disease, not a fatal one, right? And so we were we were developing the announcement of this HIV capability of underwriting and I felt that this would get a lot of positive support in that community of people who were suffering from HIV people. Advocates for people with HIV and the families of people with HIV. And I said, because we would get positive feedback from the community, let’s talk to some advocates in the community to see if they would support us in the news release in the media relations to be our spokes people. So that we’re not always just tooting our own horn. We got someone else to do it, right. And so we contacted some people. And one person said, “well, that’s very interesting. I was just speaking to one of your competitors about this subject.” And so we said…

AW: Ding, ding, ding, competitive intel. Thank you!

GH: Thank you. And then we also turn the news release around the 24 hours to get it out. So we got first to market.

AW: Wow, brilliant. What a coup. I bet you got a nice pat on the back from the CEO for that one!

GH: The leader of the business was very happy with that. And it took their competitor six months before they came up with their version of it. But ultimately, I think that we ruined their day and they had to rethink how that’s done.

AW: What fun. Especially when it’s all good news, right? When you’re first to market with good news, it’s all the better.

GH: Absolutely. We got great coverage from it. I spent 25% of my time on positive PR, 25% on crisis comms, 25% of my time managing my teams, and 25% educating senior management or talking them off the ledge because something wasn’t going the way they wanted it to.

Quote from PR industry expert Graeme Harris

AW: 25% on crisis management? Do you ever get superstitious like, “ooh, we haven’t been thinking about crisis management for a while, something bad’s gonna happen”?

GH: No. It always happens. I mean,  I’ll give you some examples of when I was at UBS, the chairman of the board of directors of a Canadian wealth management business (who was a senior executive of the bank) had to take the Fifth Amendment before Congress about tax evasion by American clients and his boss was a fugitive of US Justice because he refused to appear before Congress.

AW: That has happened in a few organizations. I can think of them right now , but I’m not going to say them.

GH: Yeah so it’s not an uncommon problem. No. It’s all about bad people behaving badly and the consequences on your reputation. As Warren Buffett said, “it takes years to build a reputation and minutes to destroy it.” So another example of this: when I was at RBC ,15 people of the institutional Asset Management Division were convicted by the OSC for what is called “high closing,” which is basically artificially raising prices by bidding them up just before the quarter. And so that you know, on you know, June 30, they all of a sudden, they’re bidding like, you know, three pennies more or five pennies more on a stock to have a close at the quarter that’s higher than what the market was evaluating. And the next day the market would put it back to where it should be. But because they got it to close high, their performance numbers were artificially inflated and made it look like they were doing better than they really were.

AW: So I’ve heard stories in different industries where that happens. It also happens in sales. What were they will either hold back sales because they’ve already met a quota and they just need to meet like a quarterly target. And then the next quarter they will put that one on the books. They’re sandbagging, right?

GH: Yes. Oh yeah. And the thing is, when this stuff becomes public, it can be a disaster. And that’s why it’s called public relations. And the last one I had was, when I was at Bank of Montreal, the media started reporting on the new wife of the CEO who described herself in an old Maclean’s magazine story as being the pleasure wife of Adnan Khashoggi, the notorious arms dealer, when he was visiting Paris is where she lived. And this was followed by scantily clad photos of her when she was a model. It was not a pleasant time for the CEO, as you can imagine, and there was pressure on us and PR to get the media coverage to stop and he went so far as to say the photos are fake, and we’re going, “are you sure? There’s so many of them. And they’re all taken from like Maclean’s from 15 years ago.” We went and looked at the microfiche and found copies.

AW: Do PR people often go into politics?

GH: Yes, they do. They usually go into politics but as operatives…

AW:  That’s what I meant.

GH: … helping to run campaigns. In fact, one of my mentors was the communications advisor to Pierre Trudeau before and was actually the first press secretary for Lester B. Pearson. So they all were operatives within politics before they would go into the public sector.

AW: Let’s get into the juicy stuff: crisis management. I feel like there must be a playbook for crisis management in terms of when something happens. Is there a playbook that you would follow when something bad happened?

GH: Well yes, I mean we develop crisis communications plans, but it’s more process than strategy. So in other words, if something happens it’s like the head of Communications says “this is something that needs the attention and we need to gather senior management…” then makes some serious decision. So they’ll basically push the button there will be — everyone’s cell phone will go off — they’ll be called in a collective conference call. They’ll be briefed on what the situation is.

AW:  And do not answer a phone call from a reporter right?

GH: Too many times they do. Because they think they know or be they’re trying to be honest and open and that’s not what you necessarily need at that point in time. So the playbook is it’s a process for getting all of the necessary decision makers and then to approve the strategy for dealing with and the strategy for dealing with it really depends on what the situation is, and you know is you know, like something like the Maple Leaf crisis. A food crisis, people were dying. So they had to make swift action. And they had to be open and transparent about it because, you know, they didn’t want all of everything that they did just basically to stop and be, you know, thrown out.

AW: So in a situation like that, would step one be “fix the problem” and then step two be “tell the media that you’re fixing the problem”? And then there’s more to come in terms of communication?

GH: Absolutely.

AW: That’s what they did, right? They were open and transparent about…

GH: Yes, we understand, this is the steps we are doing, we’re not going to do anything until all the steps are done. And, and this is what we believe happened, and this is how we’re going to fix it.

AW: And it feels like it’s so recent, but it was actually 10 years ago, right. It was 2008. I was actually working as a professor and I got a phone call from CTV and they wanted to interview me about how McCain handled this, and I said, Okay, so I can wear my marketing hat and also my consumer hat because I had seen it in the news. They’d actually produced advertising, right? To address it from a more integrated media perspective? I’m glad to hear that you thought it was transparent and effective because that’s basically what I said. I said from both a marketing perspective and watching as a consumer, I think what they’ve done is everything they could do.

GH: Yep, exactly. The only thing is that the business failed to consumer. How can they let this happen in the first place? People died. While they did everything they could after they learned it, you have to wonder … Then they had to communicate what they were going to do to make sure this could never ever happen again. Because people died, just like Tylenol.

AW:  That is exactly what I was thinking.

GH: They had to throw an entire inventory they had to develop a real world ….

AW: …all the Tylenol on the planet basically.

GH: Yeah, and then they also had to figure out how to prevent this because, unlike Maple Leaf, which was an operational issue they could control  Tylenol cannot control someone tampering with their product. Until they develop the tamper proof package. It hadn’t occurred to any know these organizations…. since people have been creating pills and selling them, there was never an issue with the tops…

AW: Yeah and so you know the other one that we chatted about was Harvey Weinstein. Because this was preventable. Because society and the people in the industry that stood by – there were enablers of this behavior. And also boards. That’s the other thing that crosses my mind. It seems to me that perhaps boards of directors were becoming a little bit complacent. It’s inertia, right?  We’re doing our job, it’s easy, management’s doing great and whatever. The industry could be for-profit, not-for-profit, Hollywood, you know, Bay Street, Wall Street,… and then something like this happens and all of a sudden all the boards are scrambling to ensure that they have best practices in place.

GH: They have a procedure manual in case something happens, and then to also do their due diligence to make sure it is in fact not happening. And they’re also taking action that when it has happened, the guys let go. And you’ve seen some high-profile resignations for bad behavior by CEOs just within the last year. So they’re acting on it. But the point is — I was also appalled when I would read some stories of Canadian companies where the CEO says there’s none of that behavior of my company. Well, how would he know? And the answer as a PR guy, if I was asked about that is there is their institutionalized sexual harassment at your company. And I would say “we have zero tolerance for that.” And when it happens, we take swift and immediate action. But I would never say “there’s none of that in our company.” That would be absolutely, patently, ridiculous..

AW: So you have a script?

GH: Yeah, you develop your position. And we have in PR what we call “standby statements” or “issue sheets.”  You identify an issue that could possibly hit your company and you come up with how you would respond to it. So you don’t have to make it up on the fly. So in other words, you know, if, when Harvey Weinstein happened in my company, I would basically be saying, what are we going to say, if someone asks us and then this is how I suggest we respond, then you said around all the senior executive and make sure they sign up to agree to it.

AW: They memorize it. Commit to memory. If anyone asks, this is the answer, right?

GH: It’s logical and now with technology, it’s online. So if you’re at a dinner party, and someone asks you  a question, you can read it and then sit with a group later.

AW: Okay. This is our position on it and deliver the message. So in addition to having these standby statements being transparent, proactive and strategic and newsworthy. Are there any other basic tenets for PR managers?

GH: The best possible situation for PR person is the truth because the truth can’t lie. The truth protects you. And the truth is what you really want in the marketplace.

AW: So I heard recently that the truth is just so much easier to keep track of.

GH: And that too.

AW: So I have I have a bit of a different question here. My first Rapid Fire question is, what is your pet peeve or pet peeves?

GH: Being in PR for so long, I don’t let anything get under my skin. I’ve seen everything, I’ve heard everything. But I guess the one thing that bugs me the most is just poor manners,.

AW:  poor manners?

GH: …and how you treat people. Poor manners and decorum. That really bugs me. People who don’t take the time to be civil and mannered in a situation. That really bugs me.

AW: It’s disrespectful to others.

GH: Yeah. And I guess maybe that’s the larger concept is I don’t like disrespect

AW: Okay. The second question is, what type of learner Are you visual, auditory, kinetic, or perhaps some other kind of learner?

GH: I’m visual. Visual. Yeah.

AW: So how does that affect your communication?

GH: I try to visualize the situation and then I articulate from it.

AW: Okay. introvert or extrovert?

GH:  Obviously an extravert! Which means, even  though I am an extrovert, you know, and then some people say I’m a shy extrovert. But you know, once I once the introductions done, I’m a pure extrovert. But it also means that I’m also acutely aware that I am draining introverts of their energy and need to behave accordingly, which is another thing about manners.

AW: That is very self-aware of you.  You’re noticing …, also, you’re being empathetic. you’re noticing others.

GH: Yeah.

AW: Kudos to you on that. Fourth question. Communication preference for personal conversation. So I’m not talking about work emails where you need to copy everyone. Where it needs to be formal. I’m talking about informal. What do you prefer to do? Is it phone? is email? is it social media?

GH: Face-to-face is not always practical, but it is the most effective, especially if you want to ask someone for something. Do me favor? or can you help? I would say face-to-face is always best.

AW: So you’re the one that rings the doorbell.

GH: Yeah, I’m the one that tries to get in front of them. And, ya know, it bugs me that people are only relying on the smallest component of communication for the 9% of their communication.

AW: Why do you think they’re doing that? Are they lazy?

GH: It’s easy.

AW: That’s what I thought. Last question. Do you have a podcast, a blog or an email newsletter that you recommend?

GH: It’s sort of like picking amongst your children. Actually, my former boss of Manulife has a podcast where she’s interviewing women leaders and the challenges that they’ve had and how they overcome them. And the successes they’ve had. Her name is Nicole Boivin it’s called Leaders Unplugged.

AW: I’ll leave a link for that.

GH: And then my other one, because of my journalism days, is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. Solid journalism, entertaining work. It’s like New Yorker magazine pieces on podcast, but fascinating subject matter that he chooses from, right.

AW: He is a great writer, and he’s a great storyteller. And in fact, he has a great voice

GH: Yeah, he seems a little nerdy to me.

AW: Yes, he’s a complete nerd. A self-described nerd. … He has a way of describing people in particular and scenes, right? Talk about being a visual learner. I can see the person, or I can see the setting, that he’s describing vividly, in my mind.

GH: Right. Exactly. That’s what I mean. I’m visual. When you’re talking about something, I will take the words and then create the pictures of my head. Yeah.

AW: Well, that’s all I have for you. How can listeners connect with you?

GH: They can find me through LinkedIn,

AW: You’re “Graeme Harris.” Two R’s. One S .

GH: Yep.

AW: Thank you so much for sharing your time and your expertise. And I had a lot of fun. I hope you did, too.

GH: I had a lot of fun.

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