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Politics & Money

Seeing past the media opportunity

I had a feeling that as soon as I dipped my toe into the public relations pool that I’d be on a slippery slope that could send me slip sliding away from the reputation I had built over long years as a trade journalist and editor. So when I speak of the PR industry in this column, it is not to indict firms operating in my space — competitors, so to speak — but rather to explain why our government is so messed up.

I’m told that there was a time, long before my time, when public relations was mostly about media relations. Very large firms, usually based in big cities, would confiscate huge sums of money from their clients and then use it to wine and dine a select group of journalists and columnists in the hope of directing their editorial content from outside. Alas, this select group rarely included beat reporters from the trades.

While I’m thrilled to see more agencies now moving beyond the media relations model and including outreach to other key target publics, there are plenty of big firms that still cater to the mistaken belief that with enough money you can control the press.

Wait. I’m sorry. I can’t believe I wrote that. I apologize.

Sometimes the idealist creeps back into my writing. Sometimes I find that I truly believe that the role of the journalist is to record history in the making, to share news without commentary for a reading public that is eager to reach their own conclusions about the events occurring during their lifetimes. While this may still be true in a few pockets of resistance, a few industries that are deemed not significant enough to garner the attention of the “mainstream press,” it’s not really true today.

Sure, I read the nation’s largest newspapers. Most of the successful executives I know read them. But not for the news. We read it for the entertainment value of finding out how the editorial directors will spin the day’s events to best illuminate their agenda. We watch cable news with the same zeal reality television fans have when they watch Survivor, only in our case we can’t wait to see who’s going to get kicked off the island for accidentally saying what they really think.

Our own industry, which for years was just too boring to make it into these giant media outlets, is now front and center. Sadly, we don’t really know how to act here. That’s why we see the chief executive of Wells Fargo in Fortune talking to consumers about how to fix the mortgage industry in terms that only industry insiders can understand.

What the readers of consumer-facing investment guides want to know is that the bank’s stock is going to be a great investment in the days ahead and that more people will get into their dream homes because of the bank’s efforts. Telling them that banks don’t want their loans on their balance sheets and that the GSEs have to be rolled out of the way is a message they are not likely to fully appreciate.

In my mind this was a company taking advantage of a media opportunity, a chance to get some ink in a high profile publication, a chance to be in the paper. Media opportunities are great; they are what PR firms are retained to dig up, stumble across or create. They are the ways we get our stories told. But they are not the stories. The stories must come first.

When we lose sight of the fact that we’re trying to advance a message and just get caught up in the mechanics of making it into the paper or onto the stage, we lose the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with a prospect, partner, customer or employee. Those conversations lead to relationships, which lead to sales.

When it comes to government, the sale is effecting a change for the better in a system that is tasked with keeping up with our society as we move together into the future. That comes from the relationships between leaders and those they lead, which start with conversations.

So, while the media opportunity does give our leaders a chance to start those conversations, too many are content to view these opportunities as the end result. That’s why we have a situation where Treasury Secretary Geithner is telling Congress that his plan is to have everything tied up neatly by 2013 and all of the politicians applauding. We have to get past 2012 for that to happen, which is great for politicians as that is the year an important presidential election will take place (and much less likely but also a possible Mayan apocalypse).

So, if you’re the GOP and you think you can point to the GSEs as one of the most significant errors your competitors have ever made, what motivation do you have to fix it and remove that media opportunity before the election? I know what my advice would be if I was their counselor — and there I go, slip sliding away.

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