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Interview with PRSA COO/President William Murray :: Follow-Up

Our PR Messages in Style and Design class had the privilege of interviewing Mr. William Murray, the new President and COO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

In this post I will offer my views of the interview, student comments, links to their posts, and express my hopes for Mr. Murray’s tenure and the future of PRSA. This interview turned out to be much more complicated than I ever desired, or imagined. Still, I think it was a positive experience.

You know, I’ve been going back and forth over this thing. After the interview, I felt good about it. Then, Cedric Bess felt that “some of your students may have been put off by the tone or brashness of the interview.” Well, maybe. I think it is fair to say some were surprised with the follow-up questions and direct nature of the questions. Yes, that’s fair. Also, William Murray wrote that he enjoyed the interview and offered “…if you would find it useful, I’d be happy to do this every semester; next time, I will have absorbed much more, and so we could dig deeper!” So, overall … I’m happy with the experience.

Then, the students started posting their comments to their blogs. It has taken awhile for them to post and for me to get them all pulled together. But, I have them now. Concerning their posts, I’m happy they wrote about it but not sure how to react to all the comments. Some of their comments are, perhaps, a bit brash.

Essentially, all of this transpired because of (a) the way the interview wound up being conducted and (b) the available information we had to choose from for crafting the questions. The last thing I would have wanted is to irk PRSA, Murray and Bess. I don’t think we have, based upon their post-interview responses, but this turned out to be a rather surprising collection of comments and impressions. At least to me, anyway.

So, what I have done is compile what I believe are representative excerpts from student comments and some of my own comments embedded within. It is a bit long, but the interview lasted 50 minutes. Please read it and help us out with your impressions.


First, a bit of background. The first request for this interview was a phone call to William Murray’s office on December 27, 2006. I made that call after learning, via news release, of his hiring. Murray kindly returned my call, stated that he would like to do the interview, and requested that I set up the interview through Cedric Bess. I wrote to Cedric Bess, Director of Public Relations for the Public Relations Society of America. A little over 30 days later, January 29, the interview took place by phone.

On the day of the interview, Cedric Bess wrote suggesting that the interview should be me and Mr. Murray chatting – with the students listening. I responded suggesting the students should be asking the questions. Still, not knowing when I would hear back from Cedric, I prepared for the interview (the technology setup, and so forth) to comply with his request. He wrote back at about 3:30 to say that the students could ask questions. But, I had set the interview up by that time to fit his desired format from the earlier email.

So, the student questions and feedback came from a text chat we had running in the background. It turned out to be awkward and led, I believe, to some of the perceptions you will read below. If the students had been asking the questions, I don’t think this would have happened.

My impression is that we had a good interview. I was, naturally, more aware of PRSA and past issues they have faced. Certainly there were a few direct follow-ups, rather than a simple chat without digging deeper. It is that digging deeper that is important. See Murray’s earlier quote above.

I thank Mr. Murray for his willingness to continue the conversation. I believe he is open to exploring change and growth for PRSA and PR overall. I hope we can do the interview each semester.

Now, to the interview.

Here I come with a class of 23+ students and weeks to prepare for the interview. As you can see by the list of questions we were required to submit in advance, we likely had more focus on the interview. For us, it was a special event. For PRSA, it was perhaps another event in a long week of events.

So, as I said to the students, let’s be fair and cut the man some slack when we review the interview. The students were more frank than I imagined they would be in their posts. Well, first of all this is a social media exercise. It is their voice. It isn’t that they are bad comments. It is just that the frank nature of the comments was a bit surprising.

Ultimately, I’m more interested in what William Murray has to say in six months to a year, than how this particular interview turned out. In six months he will have a much better feeling for the society and public relations practice.

Here are excerpts from (and links to) the posts students made about the interview in their blogs. I commented on most of them to try and provide some background and context. Tell me what you think. Seriously, please feel free to comment below. The more feedback we all have about this experience, the better learning experience it will be for all.

In no particular order, here they are …

PRSA President William Murray Gives Auburn University his First Interview
Kristina wrote, “Although Murray has never been a member of PRSA, he encouraged students to join the association. He cited the benefits of membership as a valuable networking tool and the necessary continuation of education.”

As I stated to the students, not being a past PRSA member doesn’t have to be negative here. One of Murray’s best assets may be that he is from the outside. It will make it easier for him to identify functions of the organization that may be handled differently.

Whew!
Tyler wrote, “There are two sides to this incident I would like to comment on — If you are asked to give a list of questions for a possible interview, it sends up a flag that the interview will not be as candid as you want (or as the interviewee wants). On the other hand, if you are making someone send you a list of questions that they plan to ask, BE READY TO ANSWER THEM!”

As we discussed, the request for the questions may have come from Bess, not Murray. I don’t know. Also, given that this was the end of week one, they may not have spent much time (if any) on going over our questions. Again, I don’t know.

Interview with Mr. Murray
Evyan wrote, “Basically, Murray was obviously new to the job (having only been there seven days). He was unprepared for many of the questions as well as admitting that he had never belonged to PRSSA before. Robert was polite in his conversation, but as I would describe a little ‘aggressive’”

Aggressive? It may well have seemed so to the students. I think it was the follow-ups that caused discomfort for the students. I don’t know, but practitioners may have seen the follow-ups as less than aggressive. Hard for me to judge, but I’m thinking that may be the case. After the interview, talking with the students, it seems many of them had never really experienced an interview firsthand.

And on the seventh day…..
Chasity wrote, “First, the interview was supposed to be between the entire class and Mr. Murray but at the last minute we were told that he would prefer if we just listened. Second, he wanted a list of questions so he could be ‘prepared’ for the interview. Which, by the way, he was not. I do have rose colored glasses when it comes to PR professionals because I feel like they should be transparent and up front about everything, especially when in contact with aspiring PR students.”

This was one aspect that I believe led to the interview being different than I envisioned. I wanted the students to ask the questions. That was the whole point. I would prefer to not be involved in asking the questions. I’ve done it before. The students haven’t.

Interview with William Murray
Jessica wrote, “I understand his position with the company is as a manager more than an acting, actively involved president, but he did not even know some of the important aspects of the history of the association.”

Again, this is likely due to two factors. First, it was his first week. Second, he has never been a member of the organization and has only had one month since the hire to gain a background. But, I believe the questions we submitted are representative of the issues he’ll have to face in his first year as President/COO. Also, it isn’t a “company” it is an association, or advocacy group, for PR practitioners.

William Murray — Chief OPERATING Officer
Derek wrote, “Most of my classmates were satisfied with the interview and thought Murray performed better than expected. However, many of them were astounded that Murray has virtually no experience in the Public Relations field and now he is the president of the PUBLIC RELATIONS Society of America.”

This comment reflects the sort of 50/50 split of the class. As to the lack of past participation in PRSA, most of them were surprised to learn that. I’m not surprised. Murray was hired to run the organization, not be the top PR spokesperson for the occupation. Still, with the title of President, I’m not surprised at the confusion on that perceived “top PR spokesperson for the occupation” designation.

Superbowl Sunday
Christopher wrote, “As the new president of PRSA, it was the general consensus that he really didn’t know jack about PR. He was never a member of the PRSA, nor was he familiar with their practices. I will give it to him that he was new, but he still stumbled all over his words, and danced around Robert’s questions.”

Well, that’s unfortunate. I think he knows a good deal about PR, from his perspective. This reflects, perhaps, one of the more awkward moments of the interview. It was on an early question that students were writing in the text chat that Murray might be “spinning” or “dodging” the response. I shared that with Murray. I don’t think he was taken aback, but he may have been. The students were surprised that I shared their thoughts.

Remember, we were on the phone (Skype, actually) and I couldn’t gauge any reaction by his voice. If Murray was surprised by the comment, that wasn’t my intention. As I stated at the beginning, to the students, Murray and Bess, I was going to share the back channel chat for the follow-up questions. Perhaps the students did not believe me. They do now.

One of the First Interviews With Mr. William Murray – New PRSA President – Advantage or Disadvantage?
Hayley wrote, “Murray, graduating from Eastern University and receiving his MBA from Thunderbird Business School, is a well-qualified candidate for this position; however it was shocking to the entire class we (sic, perhaps ‘when’) he admitted that he had never before been a member of PRSA.”

Again, I am not surprised that he has not been a member of PRSA. He was leading the MPA and likely had a bevy of PR practitioners reporting to him, I imagine. Did they belong to PRSA? I don’t know.

Interview Gone Right
Katherine wrote, “I think we were all a bit startled by the boldness and bluntness of Robert’s questioning. I actually think many of the faces in the class turned a few shades of red during the interview.”

Katherine also imagined that she could hear Murray’s heart beating during the interview. Still, I don’t know how to judge all of this. Murray, after the interview, wrote back to say that he wanted to do the interviews each semester. So, I don’t think he was surprised by the interview. He may have actually enjoyed it.

And Stephanie reported what I think was the most unsettled take on the interview. She felt uncomfortable.

Mr. Murray’s first interview
Stephanie wrote, “The interview was pretty tense, and I even commented in class that I was somewhat embarrassed for Mr. Murray. He had only been in office seven days, and our class had several penetrating questions for him. I’m sure he didn’t realize the atmosphere for the interview, but I felt bad. On the other hand, PRSA should have had him ready. If a senior college class tore him apart like Robert did, I could only imagine what a real reporter would do.”

I’m still surprised by some of these comments. But, there you have them.

Here are a few others. These will round out all the posts I found on student blogs. I know it isn’t 23, but that’s because (a) I did not make them all write about it and (b) there were a few other students in the room from other classes. The choice to write about this was their’s alone.

It Pays to Study Kids
Virginia wrote, “The number one question on everyone’s mind seemed to be that now that he is in charge, what is he going to do to make the PRSA different? To this the class received interesting and what some might call dodging answers.”

Interview with Mr. Murray
Dana wrote, “I thought the interview went well especially considering the man had only been president for a short amount of time. Knowing that he had only been president for about a week, I was sympathetic when he didn’t know answers to some of our questions.”

On a totally different note, some students chose not to write about the interview. One post was still about PRSA, however. Liz wrote, A Great Idea: 2007 Hispanic PR & Marketing Strategies Tour.

Please follow those links to the full student posts. That will provide a full idea of their reactions to the interview.

Finally, for a wrap-up, the feedback I received from PRSA was as follows.

Cedric Bess felt, beyond his comments above, that “…it might help to have your students exposed to more than one or two industry publications. It was obvious that the majority of the questions stemmed from the negative and critical coverage PRSA receives from a particular industry journalist. To have them believe that all the views expressed by this journalist represent truthful and accurate reporting is only doing them a disservice.”

To that I can only say, we only have access to O’Dwyer’s because Jack O’Dwyer gave us access. I also have a paid account. As for PR Week, the students have access to that because I paid for a subscription.

We searched the web for other news about Murray and PRSA, but actually did not find much background that drew student interest. Actually, there is not much information out there about Murray’s background, that I could find.

As for other news about PRSA, I don’t know if PR News writes about them very much, but if someone wants to give me a $600+ subscription, I’ll gladly take it. Bulldog Reporter has some publicly available coverage, but it is rather brief. I’ll take a free subscription to Bulldog, too. Everything else, as far as coverage, comes from blogs. There is very little in the mainstream press. Hey, anything I can share with the students I will gladly embrace.

William Murray thanked me for “the opportunity to speak with your class.” He related that, “In my last role, I used to speak regularly at USC, UCLA, Thunderbird, Pepperidge, and other area schools – for several reasons. First, I believe that it is is the ‘right’ thing to do, but second, I always learned something speaking to students – sometimes it was simply taking the temperature of people in a different age bracket, and other times it was factual – but the experience was always good. I learned last night with your class, too, as I did my own self-critique afterwards; I always believe that self-reflection is important to improvement.”

I appreciate Murray’s open nature. He is from outside the PRSA organizational culture. My hope is that he may see all sides of the issues that seem to have dogged PRSA over the years and deal with them in a manner that is mutually beneficial to all parties. Let’s also remember that PRSA has more positives than negatives, in my opinion. The problems I’ve seen stem mostly from a sort of circle-the-wagons approach. It is the lack of public statements and discussion that have likely hurt PRSA, and PR in general, by running contrary to best practices in media relations, CRM and other practices.

For me, I come from media relations experience. I have been interviewed, on some pretty controversial subjects, and I’ve done the interviews on controversial subjects, too.

I was always frank and honest about the organizations I worked with over the years. Why? If you believe in your organization – the people and the mission – expose it all to the world. My experience has been that reporters, confronted by such open sharing – will likely treat you fairly. Sometimes, they even become advocates. Honest. It has always worked. But, I haven’t worked in all areas of PR, have I. So, that’s my anecdotal reference for the day.

I thank William Murray and Cedric Bess for allowing us to have this interview. I believe, judging by the comments above and the experience overall, that this was a very good learning experience for all. I love experiential learning.

Finally, William Murray was also very kind and asked for thoughts about how social media strategies may be embraced by PRSA. I will send him my suggestions. I’m sorry I haven’t already, but it has been quite busy. What do you think they should do?

Please post your comments below. Thanks.



2 comments

  1. Robert:

    I think you’re right that the students might have felt more involved, and therefore more empathetic to Mr. M. if they had been asking the questions directly.

    As we find with e-mail and social media, the distance created between the commenter and the person being commented on can sometimes lead to language that is less polite than if you invited someone into the living room for a conversation.

    With distance comes a desire to criticize more than to comment.

  2. I agree, Eric. Thank you.

    A part of me wishes we had a mulligan … do-over. But, considering the experience, maybe it works out better this way. It certainly has been a learning experience.

    And, after all, we may well have the do-over next semester. :)

    Thanks.