To celebrate the 60th Anniversary of its Master of Science Degree in Public Relations, my esteemed alma mater Boston University held a networking and panel event yesterday focused on “The Progress of Public Relations over the Years.”
Headlining the panel was Harold Burson, co-founder of Burson-Marsteller, the first public relations firm to amass revenues of $100 million and the industry’s “Most influential person of the 20th Century,” according to PRWeek in 1999.
After arriving late and in a rush (just like in college), I washed several wedges of cheese down with complimentary pinot grigio before deciding to “network” a bit with some of my fellow alums. Armed with a few of my favorite icebreakers such as, “Can I network with you (look at nametag and smile)…Carol?” and “The cheese is really great, isn’t it Bill?” I started to make my rounds.
With no press around for the PR flaks to fight over and share their agenda with, many of the attendees who were flying solo looked a bit bewildered. Not being shy, I approached a woman in her 40s who handled public policy for a major energy provider and asked about her cheese. She laughed and we started talking about our jobs before the conversation devolved into a debate over whether we would be more likely to give up all forms of cheese or all forms of alcohol.
The lesson: In face-to-face networking situations, it’s not about being a riveting conversationalist, it’s about having the confidence to approach someone and share your opinions, as absurd as they might be.
Once the panel started, there were long-winded and well-deserved introductions of the panelists followed by opening remarks. While much of the dialogue involved the history of PR and lessons learned, I found one topic especially compelling: The accountability of major corporations and how that can be tied into diplomacy, and what effects PR can have on the process. The example of the highly protested Olympic torch run was offered, with the question, “Should major sponsors pull out because of the Tibet issue?”
On the surface, it would seem that an American company would do well to position itself as a supporter of human rights and make a big deal about its withdrawal of sponsorship money as a sign of protest. A PR win, right? Not so much. While being associated with the Olympic brand has its advantages, these sponsors are really spending millions of dollars to reach consumers in China. From the accountability perspective, is it really worth sacrificing 1.2 billion potential customers for a soon-forgotten domestic PR “victory” against a foreign regime?
The lesson: Taking the moral high-road only appeases those who share the same morals as you, and acting on the impulses of an agitated public can often be the worst thing to do in a crisis situation.
All in all, it was a good show put on by my alma mater, and I look forward to the 120th anniversary panel.
Oh, and regarding the booze and cheese discussion, I decided I would give up all beer and wine in exchange for being able to keep eating Italian cheeses.
Posted by: Nick