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TitleMania, the PR industry game—with an important lesson for people in our business

by | Aug 11, 2022 | Public Relations

Inconsequential titles have been a hallmark of the communications business for as long as I can remember

In our trade, the propaganda industry, I’ve seen titles handed out like raindrops during a storm, mainly for three reasons: 1) to placate restless account people; 2) to give clients the impression that a higher-ranking individual was watching over their accounts, and 3) as a reward for loyalty to a senior manager. (The third reason often led to discontent among the masses because office politics is difficult to conceal.)

At one time being promoted to “vice president” in our business was a badge of competency. That was before the title explosion occurred decades ago and the title of vice president became as common as lox on a bagel.

To differentiate between the peons and the truly proficient PR practitioners, new titles were created—“senior vice president,” “senior vice president/senior counselor,” “executive vice president,” “group leader,” “group manager,” and the most important sounding title of them all—“partner,” which at certain agencies was awarded to everyone. It was meaningless, unlike the titles of “senior vice president” and above, which usually, but not always, came with perks and salary increases. This title could mean whatever management wanted it to, as did many of the other titles. (In my case, the “senior vice president/senior counselor” title meant that I was often called in as a fixer-upper for troubled accounts as well as being asked to manage some. The title really was meaningful.)

Another facet of the communications business, cable TV political programs, also believes that pompous titles are important

When I was a print journalist, before jumping the fence to PR as newspapers dwindled, the title “reporter” was ubiquitous in print, radio and TV newscasts. But, as in our business, someone thought that impressive sounding titles would impress TV viewers. Thus, came “senior reporter,” “ international reporter,” “senior international reporter,” “political reporter,” “national political reporter,” ”senior political reporter,” political correspondent,” “national political correspondent,” “chief political correspondent,” “senior political correspondent,” “White House reporter,” “chief White House reporter,” “Senior White House reporter,” “White House correspondent,” and as the late, great Broadway and film star Yul Brynner said in “The King and I,” “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

Of course, not all titles are meaningless

A title can be used to impress family members or girl and boy friends who don’t know that in our world of Title Mania the awarding of titles are not necessarily commensurate with one’s ability. (In fact, in our business, I’ve known cases where lesser-titled individuals made more money than those with elevated titles because of the size of account budgets they were responsible for.)

What got me thinking about the significance of titles was one I saw in a “SuperDoctors” insert in the New York Times on May 19. In addition to the “annual list of selected doctors recognized by healthcare experts in 46 specialties,” there was also a listing of “Rising Stars” physicians. That made me wonder. Were the “Rising Stars” not yet sufficiently proficient at their specialty? Did they need more training, more supervision, more learning, made more wrong diagnoses?  Would they ever gain the expertise to advance from the “Rising Stars” listing to the “annual list of selected doctors already recognized by healthcare experts in 46 specialties?” Or was the listing just another PR/advertising ploy by the publisher of the insert? (Skeptic that I am, that’s my take.)

Why anyone would rather see a “Rising Star” instead of an MD who is already an established star is beyond me. It reminds me of the time when I was managing the Olympic program for a client and a representative of the United State Olympic Committee asked if I would consider recommending my client to be the “Proud Sponsor of the Olympic Hopefuls category,” which I declined saying, “I’d rather put my client’s money on one or two proven commodities than on 30 or 40 unproven athletes.” That’s the way I feel about choosing a doctor. I want the best available, not one from the up and coming “rising stars,” list, which brings me back to our business and the importance of titles.

In our business, not all clients are impressed with titles

One time when I was managing a major account at Burson-Marsteller, we met Harold Burson, the big honcho of the firm, in the elevator. After I made the introductions and I was alone with the client, he said, “Arthur, titles don’t impress me. As long as I’m paying the bills, everyone at this agency is just an account person. It’s the results I’m interested in, not the title of people on my account.” (Smart person.)

The client was right. It’s the results that mattered to him, not the size of a person’s office, or the title on the door. Sadly, I saw some account people counting the tiles on the office ceiling, or complaining that his plant was smaller than someone’s with a less impressive title.

What these people failed to grasp was that the size of the budget a person was managing and the importance of that account to the agency were more important than a title. In my case, I turned down moving to a larger office numerous times. Moving was a pain in the neck and the size of an office didn’t impress me; also, because of the nature of my national and international assignments the airplane was my office for weeks at a time.

(My first PR job was with a political agency, where I worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. When I first met the agency’s owner, the only words on his door was his name. His office was smaller than a bread box. He greeted me by saying, “Have a seat if you can find one.” He pointed to a few desks and said, “Pick yours, but don’t leave anything personal around. Others might use your desk when you’re not.”

The lack of a pompous title and the size of his office mattered not to the well-known, and not so well-known, politicians we worked for. It was his brain that impressed them. That was many years ago, and he had a heart condition that today might have been treatable. He was generous to a fault, and always gave me a couple of side accounts that I could work on on his dime to show his appreciation for the long hours that were necessary during political campaigns. And he never asked for a cut of the money. Unlike the top brass at today’s agencies, he never asked me to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He died too young and I decided to go back to newspaper work for a while before being recruited by a national PR firm, where I toiled for 10 years and then B-M. where I spent almost a quarter of a century. If that generous, creative and affable owner of the political PR firm did not die too young; I might have stayed in the political business.)

The important lesson for people in our business

My cynicism about PR titles didn’t surprise me after Burson-Marsteller was sold and not withstanding titles didn’t mean much to the new owners. I was amazed that so many titled B-Mers thought that their titles would prevent them from being shown the door. What a shock it must have been to them when they were given walking papers. And they must have suffered a greater shock when they applied for positions at other agencies and learned that their B-M titles didn’t impress the people at other agencies. People in our business should remember that. The title at one agency might mean nothing at another. It’s the overfill body of work that matters.

In my case, I was offered a position at another agency with what they said was “a generous salary” to manage a large account and act as a trouble shooter for other ones. That assignment was similar to what my job at B-M was. I was even told I can choose from a variety of titles. But after more than 35 years at two agencies I decided to go out on my own and become a consultant. The agency that offered me the job said my hours would have to be at least from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., which I thought was ridiculous. Dividing the “generous” salary by the hours didn’t seem so generous to me.

At one time, people going to a baseball game would hear hawkers yelling, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” Now you can because the names of the players are on the back of uniforms. However, it’s not so easy for TV viewers or PR clients to differentiate between titles. PR agencies and cable TV political programs should develop scorecards, explaining the differences between “political reporter,” and “political correspondent” on TV or ”group  leader,” and “group manager,” at agencies.

While PR firms might not have the smarts to help a client regardless of the tiles of personnel on an account, and cable TV political shows might not have reporters with the skills of major print pubs, both certainly are expert at creating many meaningless titles.

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Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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