Baffled is the word I’ll use to describe how I felt after having a conversation recently with a public relations rep. I was baffled because this putative public relations professional had no clue what he was talking about. And I was baffled because I could not figure out how or why a company would hire such a person. Think you know everything about your company? If you’re a public relations contact, you need to be sure you know as much as possible, unless you want to wind up like this cautionary example.
It all began when I decided to call an investor relations rep to check on the accuracy of some information contained in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Because I’m an analyst, and not a reporter, I call the investment relations department these days. In this instance, the investment relations department decided it was best for the public relations department to return my call. That turned out to be a huge mistake.
The company I was trying to get information out of is publicly traded and has a market capitalization north of $10 billion. This company’s financial results are closely monitored by the media and analysts, and regulatory issues regarding its products routinely make the news. In other words, the company’s public relations department should be accustomed to dealing with inquiries about any number of issues, many of them complicated.
My conversation with this company’s public relations rep turned into a disaster of epic proportions. At first, the PR person completely misunderstood why I called, even though I twice explained that I had called the IR department so that I could verify a piece of information in a document filed with the SEC, and that I was doing so because my company provides data from such filings to institutional investors. I’m not a member of the media, I explained, so maybe it was best that I call the IR department again.
“No, no, no,” the public relations rep said. It was his job to handle this. He could not, however, verify the information in the filing. He also could not say it was wrong. A non-denial denial about a publicly disclosed document? I was confused.
Again, I tried to explain to him why I called and why it was important that the company verify the accuracy of what was disclosed in its filing.
“I’ve gotten calls from my clients, institutional investors who are your shareholders, and they are confused by what you’re filing,” I said. “It appears that someone made a mistake and if that’s the case, there’s misleading information in the public sphere.”
Again, the public relations rep did not understand what I was talking about. He asked me again what publication I was writing for. Once more I explained the situation.
“You want me to give out non-public material information to you?” he asked.
That question was the last straw, so I hung up. I tracked down the number for the chief financial officer of the company, who graciously got on the phone and listened to my query. He quickly pulled up the filing I was calling about. “Wow, you’re right,” he said, after looking at the file for all of 30 seconds. “This information is wrong. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. We’ll file an amended document today.”
I was happy to get the issue settled, but I was unsettled by the conversation with the company’s public relations rep.
How could a huge public company hire a PR person with so little knowledge of something so basic as SEC filings? These documents, after all, are often what constitute a decent percentage of a public company’s news flow, and they’re not just important for investors, analysts and journalists, they’re legal documents that companies must file with a federal regulatory agency.
Rifling through my memories of being a journalist, it occurred to me that many public relations professionals do not have a basic knowledge of not only SEC filings, but how to discuss lawsuits, regulatory actions, and basic economic events in a clear and intelligent manner. For example, I once asked a public relations rep about how the inverted yield curve was impacting his company and I got a blank look. This PR person worked for a major bank, and that’s exactly the type of operation that would be impacted by such an economic occurrence.
Simply knowing what your company does and being able to pitch journalists do not make you a good public relations rep. To maximize your value to an organization, you must have knowledge about how your company operates and what affects your company’s operations. A PR person must understand the impact of financial and other regulatory disclosures, and how the wider news cycle has an impact on his or her employer. Without this knowledge, a PR person is nothing more than an annoying conduit to someone at the company who does know something.
Looking back again at when I was a journalist, I can see why I became friendly with certain people in the public relations industry. They were always excellent examples of competent PR pros, but they were also true representatives for their companies. These were people I trusted when I spoke to them; I knew that I did not have to speak to the CEO or CFO to get the information or insight I needed. One of my favorite public relations contacts started as a cellphone salesman. By the time I dealt with him, he was running corporate communications for a Fortune 50 company.
“I learned by asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of homework,” he told me. “That’s how I beat the MBAs to the top.”
If you’re not willing to learn, you’re going to find yourself stuck at the bottom.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.