Drugi jezik na kojem je dostupan ovaj članak: Bosnian
By: Ekrem Dupanović
Ana Tkalac Verčič, President of the Croatian Public Relations Association (HUOJ), is a distinguished professor at the Faculty of Economics in Zagreb and a former Fulbright fellow. She carries the courses Marketing Communication, Public Relations and Advertising. She has won many awards and recognitions, such as the “Mijo Mirković” prize, PRIDE, PRO PR Award and GrandPRix for the development of public relations. She is a member of program boards (BledCom), scientific boards (the International Conference on Contemporary Marketing Issues) and editorial staff of international scientific magazines (Public Relations Review, Journal of Public Relations Research, International Journal of Strategic Communications). She is also co-author and editor of several books such as Odnosi s medijima, Public Relations Metrics: Research and Evaluation, and the University textbook on public relations. She has written and published more than 50 scientific articles!
The occasion for our interview with Ana is the 19th Annual Public Relations Conference, a central professional event dedicated to communications specialists, which this year also has a new name: KOMference. This is because the Croatian Public Relations Association (HUOJ) wanted to highlight the new concept, content and aspiration of this gathering of all communication experts.
In the two days of the conference (6th and 7th December in Zagreb, Kaptol Boutique Cinema), 23 lecturers from Croatia and abroad will hold 10 lectures, 12 workshops and 9 panels with a series of interesting topics, from customer experience, employer branding, through political communication, ethics in public relations, the future of the media, communication and advertising to new media and the changed ways and rules of communication (https://www.komferencija.hr/program/)
ED: What was your underlying idea when you planned the program and content of the KOMference?
Ana Tkalac Verčič: The idea is that HUOJ has one conference per year. So far, 18 have been held in continuity, which is no small feat. In that period – I have to say – there were few ups and downs. This is the first conference that is held in a different spirit, and with new visual identity. The basic idea this year is not to have only the PR people talking, but rather economists, psychologists, managers… PR people will only moderate, question, coordinate, facilitate, but they will not hold lectures. That’s the idea. I think we’ve been talking too much to ourselves, and have neglected to open up and listen more.
ED: And your job is actually to talk to others, not to yourselves…
Ana Tkalac Verčič: Our job is to moderate. That’s what I believe, and that’s what we should do at the KOMference. So, we will ask lawyers how important PR is in their work? Are their clients convicted even before they step into the courtroom? Is public opinion important or not? We will ask politicians, entrepreneurs, and chairmen of governments whether they need public relations and where should PR stand. We want to hear something new. I think we are very isolated and don’t communicate enough with marketing, human resources, digital media … It’s time to start talking to them.
ED: Why do you think this is so? Is it because at some point the grip of PR loosened, and people got complacent and went a completely different direction, or is the profession not mature enough to take things into its own hands, and imposes itself to the boards and CEOs, and not be only a service for PR releases? A PR should be a right hand of the CEO, right?
Ana Tkalac Verčič: I think the profession is mature enough. That’s why we are doing this. Over the course of 20 years we have finally come to the point where we can spread our wings and take all these things into our own hands. It is a process everyone is going through – in the US, in Western Europe, and now in Croatia. We just need the time to come to the point where we can impose ourselves as the right hand, and explain what the PR needs to do and can do. We have reached that point now, and we will see at the KOMference whether we can actually explain to the CEOs how important public relations are to them. This is the biggest challenge for us: to explain to everyone in the process that they cannot succeed without communication, that they shouldn’t communicate on their own, but should seek assistance from professionals in communication.
ED: On the other hand, in many companies PR departments have imposed themselves not just as someone without whom certain things shouldn’t be done, but as someone without whom things must not be done. Very few CEOs today can give a statement to the media without prior approval from PR. How did it come to this? In my own experience, PR is currently playing a very bad role. There’s a lot of waiting, and very little reacting. When I worked in PR, I was available to my clients 24/7. Today, if it’s weekend, you have no one to ask for information. “It’s weekend for God’s sake.” Weekend can be for everyone, except for a person who is managing PR.
Ana Tkalac Verčič: PR is not just media relations, but when we talk about media relations, and when we talk about PRs being a dam between the journalists, ie the media, and organizations, or the CEOs, then PR people are just people like everyone else. Some are great at their job, and some are not. Of course, if you are dealing with public relations, and if you are in charge of media relations, you must be available 24/7. There is no doubt about that. If some journalists have a different experience, this is something to be discussed, but by no means can it be applied to the profession as a whole. At least I hope it is so. Is your experience different?
ED: My experience regarding corporate PR and media relations is very poor. There is too much waiting, too much hot air and too little substance. I receive a text that tells nothing. All the texts you receive are the same. They have the same head, same tail, same middle, one or two statements… but let’s go back to the KOMference. What is its content? What will you offer us?
Ana Tkalac Verčič: There are no more thematic conferences, where so far we always had a theme (ie transformation, or the future). The theme of this year’s KOMference is to actually change the rhetoric and interlocutors. We no longer have PRs who hold lectures to PRs. We want to have as wide a range of different backgrounds as possible, to attract colleagues from other communication areas who are not necessarily in public relations, so we could all hear something new.
The conference will be opened by Anna Kirah from US. Anna is an anthropologist and psychologist who advises the likes of Microsoft, and she will tell us how innovations change the whole decision-making process and how it all reflects on communication. That’s the kind of topics we will talk about. We should all think in a slightly different way, and open a little. A satisfying result of the KOMference would be that everyone opens a bit towards other professions, new ideas, changes …
ED: Who else would you highlight in the program?
Ana Tkalac Verčič: John White, a consultant and professor from UK who advises governments around the world, who will tell us what public relations can contribute to this highest social level. How they actually change relationships in society?
Then there’s Zenel Batagelj from Valicon, who will open the program on Friday with a lecture on certain realities, or as he called it: Report From the Frontline.
We will also hear from Christina Doris Steiner, an agency woman who will talk about how Digital is changing the world. Dejan Verčič will talk about employer branding, which I find very interesting.
We will have really great guests and excellent lectures.
ED: How is the reaction from the professional public? Is there an interest for the KOMference?
Ana Tkalac Verčič: The public response is good. First of all, the reaction from our members is good, and they are showing great interest. Secondly, we are seeing interest among those who are not our members. We have positive reactions and support from all sides, but it will all take time. There is a big number of competing conferences, so we need to show why people should choose HUOJ’s over one of those numerous others. Although people are showing their trust, it will take some time to convince everyone. For example, to convince you to come to our conference next year, on December 6 and 7.
ED: Could we say that a successful KOMference will be a sign of the beginning of – I wouldn’t say creation of a new HUOJ, but a beginning of a process that should lead to a more modern, more open, more friendly HUOJ for the Croatian PR public? You’ve been quite closed off so far.
Ana Tkalac Verčič: I’ll tell you something I firmly stand behind. I personally know all of HUOJ’s previous presidents, since I’ve been around since its beginning, and I have to say that each president left HUOJ better than they found it. Each and every one of them, and I’m prepared to argue that.
ED: That’s what you say when you are trying to be correct towards your predecessors.
Ana Tkalac Verčič: No, no, no. I guarantee it. I believe it. We need to change what was wrong, and we should always go forward. Old patterns don’t work anymore. That’s true. And just because we’re a public relations association, we can’t go on saying that everyone dealing with public relations will be our members. They won’t. If we are not interesting to them, or if we don’t offer them much, then they will not be our members. So, we have to find something to offer them, we have to figure out how to be better, we need to include the new generations, who aren’t taking us seriously. And even when they do, they think it’s hard to break through my generation, not to say the older generation. So we absolutely have to do something new, and we have to gather people from the profession. That’s the basic purpose of an association, and that will result in better conferences, better projects, and better Grand PRix …
ED: What will be your first step?
Ana Tkalac Verčič: The first step, which has been ongoing for nine or ten months, is the KOMference. We didn’t start working on it yesterday. And after the KOMference, if enough money remains in the budget, the next step we will take is the website.
ED: It should be said loud and clear for the visitors: “You are coming to the KOMference for the knowledge, for the networking and to support HUOJ.”
Ana Tkalac Verčič: Exactly. And people reacted to it. Some speakers are coming without a fee. People from abroad aside, but all the local people have supported us, because they also support HUOJ that way. There is a lot of great knowledge on the HUOJ website, which currently doesn’t serve its function properly. It needs to be shaped in a way that members can use it.
ED: Do you collaborate with Slovenian, Serbian and other associations in the region?
Ana Tkalac Verčič: Yes we do. We have invited the members of these associations to come to the KOMference. I had a promotion of a book published by HUOJ in Belgrade. One of our books is currently being translated in Slovenia. The Slovenian association is translating the Croatian textbook on public relations, which is a great form of collaboration. I hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina will soon form their own association. Where do you actually stand with that now?
ED: We keep organizing it, and then dismantling it. It was announced last year at the PR Days Mostariensis, but I highly doubt anything will come of it.
Ana Tkalac Verčič: I’m sorry to hear that. And were you at this year’s PR Days Mostariensis? There were a lot of people there.
ED: No, I haven’t went this year. Thanks to prof. Zoran Tomić and his associates, who are greatly engaged in this, they have a very good conference. And when you don’t have anything, than even a conference is enough if it’s a good one. But as for the PR association, we don’t have it. We also don’t have an association of advertisers and the advertising industry, so the Law on Advertising in BiH is currently being made by the Press Council of BiH, Association of Journalists and the Mediacentar, all of which never earned a penny from advertising. And they are the ones making the law because they know how to work with donors. It is funded by the EU actually. But let’s drop that talk now. I believe that the region is a single market, that clients are touring that entire market, and that agencies follow them.
Ana Tkalac Verčič: We are all very small, almost miniature, and our only prospect for success is in some form of coordination and collaboration. I’ve analysed the Slovenes. Their association was much more developed than ours some 15 years ago. They were far ahead, but now we have caught up with them. It would be good for all of us if we had better coordination – and I hope it is in the making. I just think we should be patient.
ED: How would you assess the state of profession in general? You are in contact with young talents in your classes. How is the interest for PR among them? Does the PR profession have a future in them?
Ana Tkalac Verčič: I am the biggest optimist for the state of profession in Croatia and in the world. I believe we are in much better shape than we were before because we have the education programs, more awareness about what public relations are, customers who know more clearly what they want and what they expect. And the more customers expect, the more agencies will provide, and the overall level of profession is higher. I think we have gone through some kind of recession phase, where a big purge has occurred, especially in the agency market. Agencies have shrunk, some even vanished, and now what is actually offered is at a higher level of quality. I teach marketing at the Faculty of Economics. Public relations there don’t have the same status as at political sciences, but I believe in public relations from the economist’s perspective. Because they have the knowledge of strategic planning, they have a foundation in the business economy, which is great for public relations. So, I think we’re good in some things. What we lack is more knowledge on part of the journalists what public relations are, we need more awareness among managers in companies what they can expect from public relations, not just in terms of crisis communication and media relations, but in many other things as well. I notice a good step forward in the development of internal communications, which is important to me and I think it is something that the public relations must absolutely take over. We are generally in good shape, but we can always do better. You aren’t optimistic?
ED: Yes I am. I always look to the future. Although, I do pay attention to the past, because I believe that a profession without a past, also doesn’t have a future.
Ana Tkalac Verčič: That’s good, but history is something that is built. No one had a past at some point. By my primary professional education, I’m a psychologist. I studied psychology in the 90’s, when psychology was a relatively young science. Today, no one would dare say psychology isn’t a serious profession. The same will happen with PR, we just need some time.
ED: It seems to me that PR people are their own worst enemies. Again, I draw from my own experiences. PR has assumed a monopoly that it doesn’t need, and that has made them complacent. Owner of a huge company can independently decide on investing five million euros, but can’t issue a statement without his PR. I know media relations are not the entire PR, but there are companies where this is true. It needs to free itself a bit, to relax a bit.
Ana Tkalac Verčič: That’s a bit of a key and lock issue. If people in management were more trained in communication with the media, they would be less afraid, and would rely less on the PR person to approve every single statement. I think all of us have to train a bit more in this communication. Some CEOs are very confident in their appearances before the media, because they are used to it and they do it well.