We at Rasky Baerlein are proud of our talented public relations and public affairs experts across the firm’s practice areas. In our new Meet the Expert series, we sit down with a different agency leader every Monday to get their thoughts on several important and timely questions and gain a greater sense of their industry expertise and experiences. This week we sit down with RBSC principal, Rex Granum.
You’ve been working in the communications industry for more than 40 years now. How has it changed over the years, and how have you adapted in the process?
You mean, how has it changed since the days of manual typewriters and dictating news stories from pay phones?
More seriously, it’s difficult to overstate the changes in both journalism and the communications industry, and the effect those changes have had on both. All the obvious developments apply: the arrival of the Internet and subsequent explosion of social and digital media, other dramatic changes in technology, 24/7 news and commentary, the demise of newspapers and major reductions in the size of audiences for network evening news broadcasts, a slide towards tabloid and celebrity-lite news, and the dramatic growth of the number of communications professionals.
I’ve needed to adapt to myriad changes in technology and to an unrelenting 24/7 news cycle. I think as long as you are determined to never stop learning new things, making those changes is quite achievable. And in my opinion, all of these changes have made concise messaging, strong writing and robust communications strategies all the more valuable. There’s a lot of blather out there, and informed communications strategies and execution stand out all the more for it.
Public relations and public affairs are constantly evolving fields. Where do you see them headed and what can professionals do to keep up?
Digital and social media provide non-traditional means with which to reach audiences. That’s good, because the number of journalists working in traditional media continues to shrink while the number of public relations and public affairs professionals continues to expand. Some estimates put the ratio at nearly 5:1 – five PR specialists for every journalist.
I’ve sometimes wondered what PR people will do when there are no more traditional journalists. It won’t come to quite that dire a situation, but it sometimes feels like it. And of course the digital and social media platforms are vibrant now and will continue to grow ever more so.
A sense of curiosity and questioning conventional wisdom is equally invaluable in both journalism and public relations, and communications professionals need to take those approaches. That, and constantly staying up-to-date with the news, news trends and social trends. Doing so can be challenging since the access to and volume of information is now so widespread and incessant. But you have to stay well-informed.
You spent more than 20 years at ABC News serving in a variety of management positions in addition to your time as a political reporter for The Atlanta Constitution. What insights did you gain while in journalism that have helped you become a better communications professional?
I’ll just say that when I left ABC News, I went from managing as many as 400 people to simply managing myself, and I’m not sure which was the more challenging assignment.
There are many different and quite valid ways to arrive at being a strong communications professional. For me, it was journalism.
Working as a journalist for so many years has been invaluable to me in my time in public relations. Genuinely understanding how news institutions work and being able to objectively assess what is likely to be viewed by journalists as a bona fide news story, or determining the best angle to pursue in our communications plans and documents, are insights that I think have served our clients well.
I think that in this business, no matter how much you may be sympathetic to or identify with your client’s cause, often what is most helpful to clients is a straightforward, objective assessment of what is a news story, what angles are best pursued and anticipating the likely response by news outlets, and then helping them tell their story in a journalistic-like manner. Making valid assessments of those situations is certainly not unique to former journalists, but I think it helps a great deal.
You also served as the deputy press secretary in the Carter White House. How did this experience on the national political stage help shape your work today?
Rasky Baerlein prides itself in its ability to understand how Washington works and working well in Washington. I think my time at the White House, as long ago as it was, helps in making those determinations. There are of course many differences between the White House work and most Washington public relations work.
At the White House, journalists are pretty much a captive audience. The challenge is not getting them to cover the White House. They are there each and every day and the question is how you are going to interact with them every day, whereas so much of what we do in public relations involves reaching out to try to gain the attention of the waning number of journalists. That, or seeking to support clients being pursued by journalists. Still, the same approach applies: be a forceful, convincing advocate on behalf of your client but never lie: lying causes harm for your client, your reputation and the reputation of your firm. Don’t do it.
What sets Rasky Baerlein apart from the rest when it comes to its approach to public relations and public affairs?
Putting the right team together is essential to carrying out successful public relations and public affairs campaigns. The wide variety of experiences held by those working at Rasky Baerlein – expertise in so many areas – gives the team leader the tremendous advantage of being able to pick and choose in order to come up with just the right team. There’s a tremendous “can do” work ethic here that, combined with the variety of experiences, is a robust recipe for success for our clients.
If you could offer clients one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t wait too long to seek public relations help. When faced with a potential public relations problem, it’s a perfectly human and understandable reaction to hope that the problem will simply go away and to put off seeking help to deal with it. And sure enough, sometimes what you think will be a major PR problem does go away. But when it doesn’t, you’ve lost valuable time in which to prepare to deal with it.
Time after time, I’ve seen clients turn to us for help later than what would have served their best interest. They’ve known of the potential problem for weeks or months but did not reach out until it was really coming to a head, with the bad news about to break. We can still provide valuable counsel, and do, but so often if we just had another week or even just a few more days in which to work with the client, the communications plan and its execution would be that much more thoughtful and effective, and less of a “crisis” for both parties.
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