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The Image Builders : Facts, Misconceptions and the Evolving Nature of PR : LES GOLDBERG and MADELINE ZUCKERMAN

Times staff writer

Politicians use them. Ophthalmologists and paleontologists do, too. So do some chefs, animal trainers, landscapers and lawyers.

It sometimes seems as if anybody who is somebody has a public relations agent.

Even the Persian Gulf crisis has a publicist of sorts: Navy Capt. Michael Sherman, known by some Southern California news reporters as “Hollywood Mike” for his past film work in the United States. Sherman heads the Joint Information Bureau in Saudi Arabia, coordinating press coverage of Operation Desert Shield.

Estimates vary as to exactly how many public relations companies there are in Orange County, but some experts guess it’s close to 400, including one-person shops. Deciding which one is for you and whether you need a publicist can be a tricky business.

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Les Goldberg and Madeline Zuckerman are among Orange County’s most visible public relations specialists, representing companies in industries ranging from technology to banking.

Goldberg, who holds a degree in journalism from Cal State-Northridge, worked as a reporter for six years for the defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He made the switch to public relations in 1975. During the early 1980s, he was the director of public relations for Odetics Inc, an Anaheim technology firm. Five years ago, he founded Les Goldberg Public Relations in Tustin. Some of his clients include computer software giant Ashton-Tate and Amkly Systems, a small personal computer products firm.

After receiving a journalism degree from New York University in the early 1970s, Zuckerman went to work for textile manufacturer Burlington Industries in New York. It was there that she found a lifelong mentor, Letitia Baldrige, former chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House. Zuckerman and Baldrige eventually became business partners at a New York public relations firm. Twelve years ago, Zuckerman moved to California and founded Madeline Zuckerman Public Relations. Her clients include Tiffany & Co. in South Coast Plaza.

Goldberg and Zuckerman recently discussed the public relations industry with Times staff writer Gregory Crouch.

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Q. What is public relations?

A. Zuckerman: There have been so many definitions of PR. Basically it’s a management function that gets communication out on a given company; it’s product, it’s service. PR develops top-of-mind awareness and name recognition.

Q. Sometimes people think a PR firm just cranks out press releases. What are the different things you do?

A. Zuckerman: There is not a real understanding of all that we do. We may do executive speech training. We may write speeches for executives. We will counsel on what community organizations or cultural groups should participate in and/or donate to. We will align top management and set up speaking engagements to get their message out into the community. We will develop film, slide and video presentations. We will develop and manage events. We will advise and counsel on a potential problem that the company may not be aware of--that is a very key value to having a PR firm. A PR firm has that objectivity to see what is coming and what is going to happen with that company’s product or service and be able to go to top management and alert them to develop a program before a crisis erupts. There’s a term very “in” right now called crisis communications. We are talking about situations like the Tylenol scare.

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Goldberg: To be effective today, a public relations practitioner, whether it be a corporate employee or an outside firm, must have direct access to the top level of management, including the chief executive officer and the board of directors. Public relations has to become a part of the company’s operating plan, part of its strategy of being a good citizen in the corporate world and an effective profit-making organization.

Q. How has PR changed in recent years?

A. Goldberg: It used to be that the public relations function of a company was the first to go and the last to know. That is no longer the case, at least in today’s world where most companies are realizing the value of public relations. The bottom line is that we now are seeing public relations people being elevated into vice president-level, corporate officer positions.

Q. How can a small- to medium-sized business assess whether it needs a public relations agency?

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A. Goldberg: One of the things that we insist upon when we go into a company is doing a communications audit. Basically, we survey the company’s officers and ask them what it is they have done in the past, what it is they would like to do and what feasibly they can do under their budget limitations. We sit down and tell them what public relations is and ought to be, according to our experience and knowledge, and see if it fits their goals. Then we develop a comprehensive PR plan which basically outlines our objectives, strategies and tactics.

Zuckerman: The PR firm’s job is to question why a company feels they have a need. They often don’t understand what PR does. They often confuse PR with advertising. Often we come in because there’s a problem and that’s a key point. We are problem-solvers. There is a problem, or a glitch in the sales figures, or they are losing market share. PR is not for every company. PR people should never guarantee specified results, or agree to make the company what it is not and can never be. And the facts must be believable. We can’t lie about a company. If they want to hire a PR firm to do that, the PR firm should turn around and walk out of the meeting.

Q. What are companies looking for in a PR agent?

A. Zuckerman: They are looking for a variety of skills. Often there are not good writers in a company. There are not good creative people who will come up with ideas or slogans or events that the company should be doing. We offer extensive research capabilities to determine what is happening with their product. Why is it losing market share, etc.? So it’s not just press releases as you referred to before. It is very in-depth. Often there are companies that have PR people on staff, and you would wonder why they still hire an outside PR firm. It’s for a lot of those reasons: creativity, writing skills, media contacts. A lot of these people inside companies can get the work done, but they don’t have the media contacts.

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Goldberg: Even writing a press release requires the skill of a good writer. The fact is that most companies, especially the smaller ones, put out marketing hype. Our job is to condense and write in such a way it will get the media’s attention.

Q. How do you select a PR agency?

A. Zuckerman: You never go through the Yellow Pages. Let’s say you are a bank and you have identified a type of program you want and the goals and objectives to be achieved. Then you should call a number of business colleagues whom you respect and trust and ask for recommendations.

Goldberg: You look over the resumes and you narrow them down. You hire a public relations professional the same way you would hire an attorney, a doctor or an accountant. You base your decision on factors like success rates, credibility, fame.

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Q. Is there any kind of certification of PR agents?

A. Goldberg: Yes. The Public Relations Society of America accredits companies and individuals. We have 239 members in the PRSA’s Orange County chapter.

Q. Some people say the 1990s may be the PR decade. Do you agree?

A. Zuckerman: Corporations are now decreasing their advertising budgets--we’ve all been reading about this--and increasing their PR and special events budgets. There is a movement toward public relations and away from advertising. . . . Some issues, such as those involving the environment, can not really be addressed through advertising. Community groups are starting to exercise the right to say what they feel about a product or a company from an environmental standpoint. The value of PR has begun to increase because of this trend.

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Goldberg: During times of a recession or economic downturn, public relations people benefit because big companies are cutting back on their advertising budgets. Typically, advertising has been the most visible means of communicating about a product or service, and companies pour tons of money into those budgets. Advertising is all about controlling the message. But now we’re finding that the message is more credible when it’s not necessarily controlled but instead interpreted, and is done in a credible manner. So people are realizing they get more bang for the buck out of public relations.

Q. Why does public relations have such a bad image among some members of the press, and how do you overcome this problem?

A. Zuckerman: Some PR professionals created the way the media view them. And it’s unfortunate. They will send out a press release, they will call five times a day. You don’t do that. You should respect the media’s job and realize they are on deadline. The materials should be accurate and concise. Get rid of the fluff and puff. Do your job and you’ll get the stories in. But PR people have ruined that. Some of them are not professionals; some of them do not know how to deal with media. The editor has a limited amount of time. Our job is to give them everything. The editor then controls what he wants to use. That’s not our job.

Goldberg: We are simply a conduit between the media and the organization we represent. If you call and ask for an interview with one of my clients, my job is to get that interview for you and to make sure the reporters are able to get the information they are trying to elicit. We can go to our clients and tell them what is newsworthy and what isn’t.

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Q. What kind of pitch does a PR company make to gain new business, and what should company executives be looking for in those meetings?

A. Zuckerman: We all pack up our wares. We put them in a big nice black shiny portfolio and we go out the door looking spiffy and terrific, handsome and gorgeous. I’m being funny, but what is really a key is that I spend a lot of time preparing. I do research on the company; I gather as much information about its products and services as I can; I spend time on the phone when the meeting is being set up to understand what the company’s goals and objectives are.

Goldberg: The biggest thing in your favor at the presentation is to demonstrate that you have done your homework, that you know so much about the company . . . that they can’t do anything but hire you. They have to be convinced that you are on top of it. Obviously, you are going to show your history and your experience and all of that, but you have to demonstrate that you really want this account by finding out about their company.

Q. Don’t some PR agencies make standard presentations about themselves? And shouldn’t this be a warning sign?

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A. Zuckerman: Your proposal cannot be canned. The moment the person sees a canned proposal he should wipe you right off the consideration list. Because he doesn’t want that. He’s not going to want a canned press release program either. The PR person should go in and not just be concerned about the flash presentation, about the song and dance, the dog-and-pony show. Some agencies spend their time doing a fancy slide or video presentation. Instead, you should show communication audit results. Show the clippings that you were able to generate. Show them the proposals you have done for other people. Show them the writing samples.

Q. Should a company look for an agency that says it specializes in a certain business, such as high-tech, real estate or manufacturing?

A. Zuckerman: We have found that being diversified works to our advantage; we may not have worked with a given product, but the programs we have done for one company are viewed by a potential client as new and different. When you’re an agency that just deals in real estate, your ideas tend to be somewhat the same. We can share an idea we might have done for Tiffany & Co. with a real estate development client. They like that because it’s a breath of fresh air.

Q. How do you know the agency is doing its job?

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A. Goldberg: You have to maintain constant communications with the client as the campaign progresses to explain who you have contacted in the media and what kind of reaction you are getting as you contact various people. You have to show results: the (news) clippings that may result.

Zuckerman: I’m so tired of PR being described as something intangible. How do you judge the results? How do you determine a value for PR? Look at it this way: I just generated 10 clippings. Look at this way: I got in front of the people you had targeted as your audience; the audience was met because I got the story right in front of their eyeballs. For one client, we once were able to get a three-page, full-color story published in Hotels magazine. We computed that space was worth in excess of $30,000 (if the client had purchased a comparably sized advertisement). You can compute that. You go into the marketplace and people hear your name and your company’s name and are familiar with your product. You tell me that that’s not the value.

Q. How long does it take to see results?

A. Zuckerman: You will never change public perception overnight. That’s why a PR program should be a minimum of a year. People often ask when they will see results, and I say you won’t see anything for six months.

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Goldberg: In my world of high-tech, the major trade publications have lead times of as long as five months. If we send them a product for evaluation, for instance, the article might not be published for six months or more.

Q. How long is the average contract with a PR agency?

A. Zuckerman: I learned many years ago that account retention says a lot about the quality of the firm. It’s very easy to get projects for an agency. They are a dime a dozen. It’s harder to develop a 12-month or a three- or five-year marketing and PR program, and to stay with that company and see the results. But it’s a lot more effective for the firm. When a company wants to develop a good image, a good perception, a good communication pattern with the public, you’ve got to do it through an ongoing program.

Goldberg: We can’t do a really effective job unless we know all about the company and live with them for a while. Projects are very difficult to do. Of course, we can put on a press conference, we can write a press release, those kinds of things. But to really understand a company and do the job effectively, you have to invest a lot of time and effort into learning about it.

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Q. How much do PR agencies charge?

A. Zuckerman: PR people are paid by the hour, mostly. I don’t care how you slice it, but we make our money based on time. People say one of the hardest things to do is to estimate what a project will cost. They want to know a lump sum. What you have to do is list all the steps, all the activities and put a time frame on them. And then you come up with a figure. In Orange County, fees are ranging anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 a month.

Q. What about by the hour?

A. Goldberg: I would say it’s from $75 to $150 an hour.

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