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Diversity, PR, and Storytelling: Frank Marra Shares His Expertise With IMC Professionals

Frank Marra

Frank Marra is a professor and practitioner in Rochester, New York. He teaches IMC 631 — Crisis Communication at West Virginia University. Marra worked and studied for five years with Dr. Jim Grunig, the world’s leading scholar in public relations. He is a specialist in crisis management and developed the first theory of crisis public relations. 

We recently interviewed Marra on WVU's weekly podcast regarding his views on public relations, diversity in the communications field, and the power of storytelling. Read our thoughtful Q&A with him below!

Matthew Cummings: Even marketing communications professionals tend to confuse public relations and marketing and advertising. Can you start out by explaining the similarities and differences to us?

Frank Marra: Public relations is more than publicity, it's more than being a spokesperson. We are strategic counselors. It's also more than liking people. It's more than good interpersonal skills. Public relations is not about liking people. Marketing, advertising, public relations — it's all forms of communication and because we all do sort of the same thing,  integrated marketing and communication, everybody assumes that they're the same thing, but they are not. There are some important differences. Marketing and advertising, their primary focus is on one public. That's the customers the consumer.

Public relations on the other hand, its primary focus is on multiple publics — customers, employees, reporters, raw legislators, donors — lots of different publics. Another difference between advertising and marketing and public relations is the objective. The objective of marketing and advertising is to make money for an organization, to earn revenue, to generate a profit. Public relations, the flip side of that. The objective of public relations is to save money. It's to build relationships with its important publics to prevent problems.


MC:  What can you tell us about the current state of the public relations industry today?

FM: There are people who are far wiser and have more experience than that in the about the specific details of where public relations is and where it's going, but the biggest thing about public relations today is change, change, change.  Communication is evolving before our eyes in real time. The technology is changing. Social trends are changing. Rob Flaherty is the chairman of Ketchum, a public relations agency and he said, "Half of everything needed now to practice public relations did not exist 10 years ago."

MC: Is it possible to be successful and also be strategic in public relations and do so ethically and what are some resources that those that want to learn more can go to?

FM: It is possible to be successful and strategic and ethical in public relations, but it is a challenge. Sometimes, for example, a public relations manager wants to make an ethical decision, perhaps to release information that legally needs to be available, but they may not have the access, the influence and power within the company to make that happen.  If you aren't at the decision-making table, your ethical behavior just won't matter, so you have to be part of the decision-making group of an organization. If you're not, no matter how ethical you are, it really won't make a difference. Another barrier to ethical decision-making is fear. Do you want to challenge your boss? Are you afraid to stand up for doing what is right? Some public relations managers have substantial salaries, they have substantial benefits, they have substantial power. Doing the right thing, doing the ethical thing would put this lifestyle at risk. It becomes easier to look the other way.

MC: What's your advice for PR professionals when working with attorneys?

FM: The difference is the court of law versus the court of public opinion. Attorneys and the law will tell you what you must say in a given situation, perhaps a crisis. A  public relations manager will tell you what you should say, not what you must say. If you talk to an attorney, they will tell you to say as little as possible, so you can protect yourself in a court of law and that's pretty good advice. A public relations manager, on the other hand, they will tell you to say as much as possible to protect your reputation in the court of public opinion. That's good advice too.

Here's where the conflict comes in. These are often exact opposite strategies. The attorneys are saying, "No comment," the public relations manager are saying, "Talk, explain, tell people what happened." Both of these strategies are valid. The Chief Executive Officer is listening to both of these different strategies. It has to come to a decision about what to do. Do you want to protect yourself in a court of law, which will take months and years to resolve and could involve hefty substantial fines in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars? On the other hand, on the court of public opinion, a Chief Communication Officer is saying, "We have to explain ourselves. If we do not, our reputation will be ruined and we won't have to worry about paying any fines or facing any legislative penalties down the road."

Again, months and years down the road. In a crisis for example, reputations can be ruined in minutes. A story is posted, it goes viral and so organizations need to respond quickly and you have to respond to the court of public opinion, looking at the balance between the court of law. The good news, in many organizations where you have this barrier between public relations and the legal office, today attorneys and public relations are now partners. They are working together to find a balance in terms of statements to release.

MC: Can we talk a little bit about diversity in our profession. Is this a strength or is it a weakness of public relations?

FM: I think, the  diversity issue is both a strength and a weakness. Public relations is female majority, and women have strong communication skills. I think that is a strength in public relations. But there are too few public relations, too few female public relations practitioners that are the leaders of departments and agencies. Lots of women are at the mid-level, but  there are too few women who are controlling, who are leading organizations as Chief Communications Officers who own and manage public relations agencies.

There's also a  terrible problem with the lack of diversity in all communications professions, not just public relations but journalism, advertising, marketing. There are far too few minorities. African-Americans are not represented well enough. Asian Americans, Hispanics, Latinos and all other minority groups. It is silly for an organization or a public relations agency to say, we can represent you as a client if you are in the African American market or if you run a Latino and Hispanic market if the entire staff are White men or White female.

MC: What skills would someone need to be successful in a career in public relations?

FM: The ability to write well remains crucial. That's fine. But that actually shifted last year. It's still important to be able to write say a statement or a news release that has lots of facts, but now,  it's shifting to the ability to engage with an audience and to tell a story The number one skill that employers are asking for, public relations graduates, is the ability to tell a story, not to write well, but to tell a story. Also, we need to be more business literate, so we can talk to our colleagues and understand all of the issues that influence communication and influence the success of an organization.

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Additional Information on Frank Marra: In addition to teaching in WVU's IMC program, Marra has taught at Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland, Ithaca College, Cornell University and the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester. He was also a member of the faculty at the Curtin University Business School in Perth, Western Australia, and at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. Marra has worked as a public relations practitioner, as well as at radio and television stations, including the top-rated talk radio station in Washington, D.C. Marra is a former president of the Public Relations Society of America’s Finger Lakes Chapter and co-chaired PRSA’s MBA Project for two-years. Marra earned his bachelor’s degree from Carleton University (Ottawa, Ontario), master’s degree from the University of Florida and doctorate from the University of Maryland.

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