For 35 years, Luc Beauregard has had inordinate influence on what gets reported in the Canadian media. As founder and builder of Canada’s largest public relations firm, National Public Relations Inc., the former print reporter bridges two eras – the old-media world of networks and newspapers, and the new social and online platforms. He is also a driving force behind the Communications and Public Relations Foundation aimed at collaborating with universities on cutting-edge research.
What have been the big changes in the PR profession?
We fought for a long time to be recognized as senior people around the executive table. I cannot say this battle is entirely over, but there has been a lot of progress. Many of the new CEOs understand the importance of communications to all their stakeholders. Every time they make a big decision, they have to be sure their public relations people are around.
That creates big demand for qualified people – not just publicists capable of cranking out a news release, but it’s more about the capacity to evaluate the environment of the corporation and provide judgment and advice.
In the past, when large corporations would make staff cuts as a result of a recession, they would hit the public affairs department first. They would fire the PR guy. We haven’t seen that lately. They keep their public relations departments. They staff up in that area.
How important is the rise of social media?
That’s the big game-changer. We used to only face traditional media and now we get the social media, the Internet media … and then there are the corporate websites.
Aren’t you in danger of becoming irrelevant?
No, quite the opposite. We have to be quicker on our feet but we are needed more than ever. There used to be one editorial in the morning that you had to deal with, and now there is a world of editorials.
Even if I read traditional media such as La Presse or The Globe, before I get to the editorial page, I get many editorials. The opinions on the editorial page are just one view expressed and in the paper there are many others. All the columnists today are more or less editorial writers. It makes our job much more difficult.
But a company with a single tweet can now reach more people than a standard press release. Isn’t that a threat?
No, because before the tweet, there has to be a decision. There is a strategy developed. The managers have to agree on what to say, to be solid on the position. The company exists for a long time, but a Twitter message isn’t even for 24 hours.
Judgment is more important than ever. You have to resist reacting to the first tweet; you have to stomach what is being said sometimes and make sure your next move is one that doesn’t shoot yourself in the foot, with too quick a reaction or an unfounded reaction.
In the past, when we hired people, we were interested in their knowledge of traditional media and today the knowledge of social media is an interesting feature. The younger kids all know what it is about. We have invested heavily in trying to train everybody in those skills.
What is your personal reaction to the new media and social media?
It creates so many voices, but don’t you find that a lot of the stuff you find is rude? It’s awful – so uncivil. There will probably be a cleanup at some point, and the volume will come down a bit.
In the old days, journalists acted as gatekeepers, as a filter to what made sense or didn’t make sense in their view. What you read, you felt, was the right way of presenting the facts, whereas in these new media, there is no exercise of judgment – it is often raw stupidity. It is hard to take seriously, although it may create a mood.
As for the social media, I don’t do it myself but when I need to know what’s going on, I call guys in the office.
We have a new line of business to monitor what is being said about a company [online]and how to keep their conversation going – and it is a lot of work. That’s a service that companies don’t necessarily have internally. That’s something of value we can bring.
What’s the biggest nightmare in the PR business?
It is when [clients]didn’t call first about a problem and we have to pick up the pieces. We could have had input and affected the decision. But things are so fast now, it is not always possible.
My wife cannot stand my being at this [BlackBerry]every minute of my life, but that’s part of my business. People want things and they know I will respond immediately.
What was your worst experience in this business?
In the 1970s, I was hired to do work for Montreal Auto Show, and I was proud to get the job. The angle was that the show would have an environmental kiosk to reflect the sensitivities of the manufacturers to these issues. We had the idea of holding the news conference at the Botanical Gardens [which] are fairly off-centre in the city, near Olympic Stadium. No media showed up, and I had to call them and deal with them one-on-one.
But can you really control the message the same way now?
You still need to control the message. If you’re going to be consistent, you can’t say one thing one day for one public, and another the next day. You have to be as coherent and as fact-based as possible, and use your own judgment – and judgment is not sold on the shelves of Home Hardware.
Title: Founding chairman, Res Publica (owner of National Public Relations and Cohn & Wolfe).
Born: Aug. 4, 1941, in Montreal.
Education: Graduated from College Stanislas, Montreal.
Began as journalist: parliamentary correspondent and city editor at La Presse (1961-68).
After stint in political press relations, three years as publisher of Montréal-Matin.
In 1976, founded National, which grew into Canada’s biggest PR firm.