PR convention: The art of spin, schmooze talk

November 16, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

This is just too perfect. More than 2,000 public relations people at the Baltimore Convention Center. See them strolling Harborplace this week, snooping around in their perfect name tags and perfect necktie knots.

They even have a name for themselves: the Public Relations Society of America.

First, an explanation. Although journalism and public relations are professional cousins, historically we don't get along. Us and Them. As public relations majors, they went for the money. As journalism students, we went for Integrity, Truth and Two Weeks' Vacation After a Year!

But we never really got away from one another. They keep bugging us to write about some product or author or program they're touting. And they have to put up with our throwing their press releases in the trash.

But we're going to keep an open mind while covering the 47th National Conference of the Public Relations Society of America. We started by reading their fancy program over some of their fancy Colombian Supremo coffee.

"Baltimore is fresh, fun and exciting. A dazzling blend of the traditional and the modern, Baltimore's renaissance has transformed its Inner Harbor and surrounding area into a fabulous playground."

Fabulous playground? Who wrote this, a PR guy?

Well, yes.

A Ketchum Public Relations ad in the program shows a delicious picture of chocolate cake. The caption reads: "We've helped people see prunes in a completely different way." Another spin doctor at work.

Scanning the program, we privately chuckle over the "issues" the PR industry is struggling with, such as: "Will Public Relations Techniques Work on Generation X?" These PR people are so lost! Do what we do, folks -- get a cheap intern who can spell Kurt Cobain.

Look how far the public relations industry is behind the technological times. While it buys the new LumaTrak broadcast verification service to track video placements with 99 percent accuracy, we got new telephone headsets in the other day. Sure, we look like grumpy Time-Life operators, but the cutting edge is never pretty.

As for the seminars, "Traveling the Superinformation Highway" seminar is standing-room only. A guy in the back mildly yells, "FIRE, FIRE!" -- just a little PR humor. Everyone here looks so . . . employed.

They have come from such companies and places as Union Electric in Missouri and the Pennsylvania Builders Association and the Women's Int. Bowling Congress of Wisconsin and Children's Protective Services in Houston and Kaiser Jamaica. They brought their snappy briefcases with combination locks and their laptop computers and their appointment books made of the finest Corinthian leather.

Dr. John Pavlik, from the School of Communication at San Diego State University, leads the seminar's topic on the information highway -- which is what again?

"There isn't a consensus on what the superinformation highway is," he tells the crowd. It giggles.

Then he mentions something about a White House Home Page on something called the World Wide Web and the adult-oriented boom in on-line products and the prospect of on-line gambling. The words "synergy," "plenary" and "cyberspeak" are heard. The room is spinning now, everything getting foggy.

The conference reveals that a major challenge for public relations professionals is how to achieve maximum results from in-house staff supplemented by outside consultants. This is "outsourcing," which is "in."

Outside another packed seminar, a speaker's voice is barely heard: "Newspapers in their current form will only be around for about another 15 or 20 years." The newspaper audience is shrinking. Few young people bother to read them. They are just not interactive, the speaker says. The mob nods. People look like they have just eaten newspapers for brunch and washed them down with Colombian Supremo.

These conventions are such a blast! How many places can you go to find out that you have 15 or 20 years to live?

But our spirits are somewhat revived when, after a dirge-like discourse on "New Ways to Reach the Media," the speaker is greeted with this comment from somewhere in the back of the conference room: "I'm sure what you just said has meaning."

For this convention, the Exhibits Hall has been stocked like an electronics trade show. Revolutionary New Electronic Publishing Software. Electronic Office Demonstrations. Dow Jones News/Retrieval. Video Public Relations by Medialink. Over in the corner, it's nice to see an old bulletin board with messy messages tacked on.

Julianne Chase, who works PR for the Holland America cruise line, is handing out chocolate at the Seattle Trivia Contest booth. She's also pinning little stickers on people.

Ms. Chase used to be a newspaper reporter. "Since I've been on the other side, I've been misquoted a lot," she said. Or something like that.

So, what's the difference between a reporter and a public relations spokeswoman? We both want to get our news out and, well, "we make more money," Ms. Chase says.

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