Q&A: PRSA’s 2020 Chair speaks out on PR’s biggest issues and challenges

by | Mar 9, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

T. Garland Stansell, APR

T. Garland Stansell, APR

T. Garland Stansell, APR, has been elected as PRSA’s new Chair for 2020. A Birmingham native with more than 30 years of experience in communications, Garland is the Chief Communications Officer at Children’s of Alabama. He has a long tenure of leadership at PRSA, serving as Chair-elect in 2019, Treasurer (2018), Secretary (2017) and an at-large member of the Board of Directors (2015-16).

As the incoming chair, Garland is looking forward to continuing PRSA’s growth as the nation’s leading professional organization serving the communications community. He’s specifically interested in advancing the conversation around the all-important areas of civil discourse and diversity and inclusion, while he also looks to put an increasing focus on international partnerships and thought leadership.

An incredibly active member of PRSA, Garland has long been dedicated to the growth of the profession—giving back to the public relations profession on a state and national level—ever since he was in PRSSA as a student at the University of Alabama. Throughout his career, Garland has stayed local to Alabama and, in fact, is the first PRSA member from the state to be elected chair at the national level.

Bulldog Reporter caught up with the new PRSA leader for some insightful feedback on the current state of the PR industry, the toughest challenges he sees PR facing in 2020, and his perspective on creative improvements along a range of industry issues from crisis to measurement:

What kinds of benefits do you see for PR in an increasingly integrated communications landscape, and what key challenges will need to be overcome for PR to maintain its distinction?

The days of practicing pure PR, or pure marketing, or pure advertising are gone, because those lines are blurred and will continue to blur. Things are definitely changing rapidly and we see this as a positive development for public relations. One of the priorities in our new Strategic Plan is focusing on discipline convergence, so we are very aware of it, and we are looking at ways that PRSA can help professionals at all levels of their careers, as well as students, be better prepared for this new and evolving reality.

Public relations is a strategic process, looking to affect attitudes, opinions and beliefs. The other disciplines are complementary and are important tools to be used as elements, tactics if you will, of an overall strategic PR campaign.

One challenge may be that some PR professionals are not that well-versed in other disciplines, for example marketing research or principles, in which case we can partner with those professionals to help supplement what we’re missing and strengthen our PR strategies. So, the blending of disciplines is very much a positive, not a negative.

Media distrust seems to be reaching an all-time high. What do public relations professionals need to do to rise above this skeptical landscape in their media relations practices?

One of the strengths we have as PR professionals, and certainly as members of PRSA, is our Code of Ethics. We need to make absolutely sure that we are transparent and truthful, and that we are representing information that is factual.

We also need to make sure that we know something about the journalists we are pitching to or working with. If it’s an outlet or website or social media site that we are not familiar with, it is incumbent upon us to do our research to make sure that they are legitimate and have a track record of working professionally and ethically, and that information is presented fairly.

Corporate ethics has become an ever-sensitive issue, and one which squarely falls in PR’s wheelhouse. What actions can PR professionals take to address these kinds of issues and help restore public faith in business and institutions?

This goes back to the importance of PRSA’s Code of Ethics and the importance of public relations professionals serving as trusted counselors in their organizations and standing up for transparency.

And I would say from the standpoint of corporate ethics, one of our most important roles is to serve as the conscience of the organizations we work with, and we need to be the ones who remind people that what is legal is not always ethical, and to stand up for what is ethical as well as what is legal.

For many reasons, there is incivility in the air. As the political culture becomes more hostile, partisan differences are more unforgiving, and this incivility often finds its way into brand communications and marketing culture. What are your hopes for addressing and attacking this nature of communication in the coming year? Is there a place for PR in this societal dilemma?

Absolutely there is a place for PR in that we as public relations professionals are in a unique position to help with this. As I mentioned, we are the conscience of our organizations, but we can also serve that role in society and promote a civil discourse instead of instability.

There was a time when we could discuss issues, including politics, and agree to disagree, show respect for other’s opinions, and even open minds to other views in a way that heard and respected the individual.

As public relations professionals, we are in a unique position to advocate for a more civil society. We can help raise the consciousness of the organizations we work for and clients we advise, as well as serve as thought leaders. And we all need to remember that different is not inherently bad, it’s just different.

Boeing, Peloton, and Hallmark Channel are just a handful of brands that found themselves embroiled in crisis last year—and poor or obstinate reactions escalated the crises in every case. What do you think are PR’s greatest crisis communications challenges, and how can the industry sharpen its crisis management?

We are living in a world that expects immediate answers, so what challenges us most in crisis communications is to answer too quickly, to be afraid that if we don’t find an answer right away then the media will go somewhere else to get an answer, and they may very well do that.

We used to have news cycles that might have been several days, then 24 hours, and now it’s basically 24 seconds. We don’t need to fall to the tyranny of the urgent. If we’ve got the answer than we can give it, but it’s OK to ask for more time.

And if a journalist can’t wait to have the factual information, and they go off to get it somewhere else and it’s incorrect, then that’s on them, not the PR person.

In a crisis, cooler heads should prevail, especially if it’s a crisis that has some kind of public impact such as a public health issue or a different kind of safety concern. We need to be sure we’re right and we’re presenting information that is factual and helpful.

Measurement has always been a pain point for a lot of PR practitioners. Some of the more traditional measurement strategies that were once relied on, such as AVEs, are pretty commonly thought to have lost their value in the modern landscape. How can public relations professionals rise to the challenge of measurement?

I see measurement as one of the benefits of discipline convergence. We’ve seen that marketing has been able to measure more effectively over time, because they worked in dollars and cents, or numbers of people responding, or purchasing something.

So now that there’s more blending taking place, we can incorporate some of those metrics from marketing and other disciplines into our campaigns and learn from them.

There are also now electronic means through which we can measure outcomes, and even do some research on the front end to test certain attitudes and beliefs about our organization, or a product, or idea.

Due to technology and discipline convergence we’re in a better place today to do pre- and post-measurement, to prove that we have been able to shift the needle.

Maintaining relationships with the media has always been in PR’s wheelhouse, but this duty now includes building them with all manner of company stakeholders, including employees, investors, influencers, and of course the public at large, particularly when it comes to reputation management. Do you think PR’s role of relationship management will continue to grow in importance? 

I do think it will continue to grow in importance. The rise of social media means that we have more direct access to constituents than we did in the past, and that has expanded PR’s role in reputation management. In essence, public relations is in the relationship business, and we’re about building those relationships. And the continuing evolution of technology is playing and will continue to play a big role.

For example, AI is also increasingly having an impact on how businesses convey information and interact with the public. I don’t think it will ever replace public relations, but it may change the way we practice it, the way we build those relationships, and it is critical for us to remember that no matter how high tech PR or our world becomes, at its core public relations is really a high touch profession. We have to look carefully at who prefers a face-to-face relationship, who might want it electronically, and which tactics we use to build and maintain those relationships.

With all the noise expected during this election year, 2020 is guaranteed to be a wild and woolly year for media—so what can PR do now and throughout the year to keep their companies and clients on the media radar, and cut through that political noise? 

It will be a challenge for sure, at least in terms of paid media taking a back seat because of political ads. As far as earned media is concerned, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s going to be even more imperative that we do our homework and understand the media outlet and journalist we’re pitching, what they cover, and that our stories are compelling, so they don’t feel that we’re wasting their time.

That may mean managing expectations, having frank conversations with our organizations and our clients, because sometimes we’re expected to get stories that we ourselves know are not that strong. And this is a great opportunity to take advantage of owned media, seeing what we can do with our own blogs, websites and social media to break through and generate attention and coverage through our own channels.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter