PR convention puts focus on change

November 13, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

In the crucible of a terrible business and personal tragedy, Jack Felton found proof in July of just how much the information revolution has changed his job.

Mr. Felton is the top public relations executive for McCormick & Co. Inc. of Sparks, and McCormick Chief Executive Bailey A. Thomas had died that morning. Mr. Felton had to get the word out to six continents, and he could still hardly believe the news himself.

"It used to be that we could release a story and it would be several days before it hit San Francisco," Mr. Felton said. "Now you release a story and you have calls from reporters from Brussels and Hong Kong. I enjoy it, except sometimes reporters call from Australia at 2 in the morning."

That, in a nutshell, is what makes things so interesting as the Public Relations Society of America prepares to open its annual convention today at Baltimore's Convention Center. The world has changed the way people communicate, as a handful of top papers and three TV networks have begat e-mail on top of the Internet on top of cable TV, creating what some see as a wonderful creative environment and others see as a darn mess.

But as anyone with a job knows, more than just communication is changing in business. Organizations and markets are changing just as fast, maybe faster. That's why the public relations trade, long regarded as hard-working but a bit ephemeral, is packing its days less with technique than with substance.

Far from the usual Larry King fare of convention speakers, the PR society is bringing in chief Reagan administration economic adviser Murray Weidenbaum, Bush administration Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, and former Harvard Business Review Editor Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

All three speeches are supposed to tell up to 2,000 PR professionals about the way business is changing as the information economy emerges further. The society also commissioned studies for release this weekend on public attitudes toward economic change (generally negative, because of higher job-related anxiety) and a report by Mr. Weidenbaum and a colleague on more participatory management for "the new American workplace."

"Our job is to equip our people for these changes," said society President Joseph A. Vecchione, a spokesman for Prudential Insurance Co. in Newark, N.J. "Public relations is becoming more of a management technique than it has ever been before. Public relations professionals will be sitting at tables helping make decisions, not just implementing them."

The basic idea is that public relations people can't explain the world to reporters, employees and other "publics" unless they understand it themselves, said Mr. Vecchione and John Beardsley, chief executive of a Minneapolis public relations firm and the society's president-elect.

Even then, Mr. Beardsley said, the technological changes themselves are daunting. His own business card, which 10 years ago had only a phone number on it, now has listings for voice mail, fax, cellular phone and an Internet address. The problem is that with so many communications channels out there, it's harder than ever to reach large numbers of people because there's no one place where everyone gathers.

"Communication has never been more important than it is today, but it has never been more fragmented," he said. "You used to be able to watch one network. Now radio stations are proliferating like amoebae. [On television] you will need a computer to navigate the channels."

"What's harder is focused communication," Mr. Vecchione said. "Our job always is, how do you penetrate? How do you get through?"

For Baltimore public relations firms, technology has been an important part of the answer, and its role is still growing.

Phyllis Brotman, who along with her daughter owns Image Dynamics Inc. in Baltimore, says technology has let the firm do more on its own, instead of relying on contractors for graphics and other work. She added that the 22-employee firm -- large by Baltimore standards -- spends between $75,000 and $100,000 a year on technology and can now routinely do things like communicate simultaneously with multiple clients in Europe.

"One of our employees forgot and mailed something," she said, laughing because the company sent the information electronically when the error was discovered and then waited to see how long the printed version would take to arrive. "It took forever."

David Imre said technology lets his three-person office in Towson serve clients as far away as New Mexico. "When I went out on my own, what I needed was a computer, a printer, a fax machine and a phone, and I was in business," he said. "I can do business in virtually any part of the world without having to be on site."

But he warned that the technology that makes communicating faster and, in some ways, easier, doesn't change the basic nature of communication.

"In many ways it's a high-tech business, but in many ways it's a high-touch business," said Mr. Imre, who is president of the Baltimore chapter of the society. "You can't get carried away; I don't think you should."

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