Several times over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asked the simple question: “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m in public relations,” I respond.
Their responses often demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the PR industry. During notable instances, there was a brief pause of silence followed by something along the lines of:
- “Oh, you mean the people who try to get people to buy things they don’t need.”
- “Wow! [condescending stare] So um… the guys who help manipulate people?”
- “So the guys who help corporations lie?”
I’ve found it very clear that the PR industry itself has a PR problem. Indeed, these negative associations are calcified by the derogatory and incorrect journalistic term for PR as “The Dark Side,” PR pros as “spin doctors,” and by the dishonesty of some PR campaigns in the media spotlight as of late.
This perception doesn’t merely lie outside of the PR industry, either; it’s begun to poison the beliefs of PR students themselves as well. PR Daily points out that some PR students believe they are “supposed to lie” — a tragedy to the future integrity of the industry, and one that flies directly in the face of the PRSA’s code of ethics and those of most PR firms. Thankfully, September is PR Ethics Month, and PRSA and others are undergoing initiatives to correct those false notions.
Danny Brown, partner at Bonsai Interactive Marketing, argued that every industry has this problem — from marketing to lifeguarding — and that the problem lies with individuals, not inherently with the industry. The most dishonest and unethical PR campaigns are no more common than the Ponzi Scheme or Cayman Island tax evasion of financial investing, or the journalism phone hacking that’s been making the news recently.
As I noted in my previous article about the representation of Islam, entities often become naturally represented by the most extreme instances within them. Glenn Ferrell put it brilliantly when he said:
“We humans do lousy induction. It’s in our nature to collect these highly negative outliers and then construct generalizations that hurt entire industries.”
Thus, it comes as no surprise that the PR industry itself faces the tough task of bringing attention to its larger, brighter side.
I believe that PR has an additional layer of vulnerability because it tends to reject the Journalistic ideal of objective truth. In other words, PR exists on the premise that there are multiple perspectives of looking at an issue, and seeks to make sure that the perspective of the client is given the attention it deserves. Those who firmly believe in the objectivity ideal may interpret some aspects of PR as manipulation, while PR pros and their clients simply see it as representation.
The Tip Of The Iceberg
I’ve come to notice that people are vastly unaware that PR is about more than simple representation. They don’t realize that beneath the representative surface, much of the work involves building relationships and — to the delightful surprise of many — increasing transparency.
As a solution to this problem, Gini Dietrich of PR blog Spin Sucks has proposed that individuals should promote the measurable business value of PR. This solution is exceedingly necessary for perception towards clients and CEOs (and with the growing toolkit of analytical tools, it’s becoming more feasible than ever before). However, to the general public who remain some of PR’s strongest critics, a different aspect must be emphasized.
Because people lack awareness of the industry’s more dominant, positive side, PR professionals must always be ready to articulate what PR is actually all about. When the critics that I talked about at the beginning of the article made those comments, I took the opportunity to make sure they were aware of the following points (albeit in a very friendly, conversational manner):
- A large part of PR is about building relationships: between business to business, business and consumer, and between clients and media.
- Much of the work of PR firms involves helping social causes, non-profits, and educating the general public on things important to their health and lifestyle.
- In today’s information-rich world where everyone is their own investigator and publisher, increasing transparency is absolutely fundamental.
Sometimes I’ll put the industry in context with an open-ended question or hypothetical anecdote:
- Say a new business, non-profit or social campaign opens up, or an established business develops a new product, changes CEOs, or acquires a new company. How do they communicate all of this to their audience?
- Say that one employee does something irresponsible, and the company faces a disproportionate (and often undeserved) consumer backlash because of it. How does the company tell its side of the story?
To my pleasure, their response has always been positive and supportive. The biggest takeaway here is that far too many people have no idea what PR is all about. In order for this to change, PR pros and students at all levels must have an understanding of PR’s deeper role in society, and be able to articulate it accordingly. It’s up to us as PR representatives to treat the industry as we would our own client, and give it the representation that it deserves. By making sure that people understand the true colors of PR, we can ensure that the “Dark Side” label goes back to where it came from.
What other ways are there to protect the reputation of the PR industry?
Please debate, supplement and respond to this article by commenting below.
For more articles on repairing and protecting PR’s reputation, Spin Sucks is a fantastic resource.
Links in this Article
- Uh-oh, some PR students think they’re ‘supposed to lie’ – PR Daily – By Dario Bernardini
- PRSA Code Of Ethics
- PRSA Ethics Month Activities
- Danny Brown on Twitter
- You Know What’s Wrong With The PR Industry? – Danny Brown
- Ponzi Scheme – Wikipedia
- “Tax Me If You Can” – Haven Or Havoc – PBS Frontline
- News International Phone Hacking Scandal – Wikipedia
- Where Are The Moderate Voices? The PR of Islam – Flames On Fifth Avenue – By Eric Wittke
- Glenn Ferrell on Twitter
- Seven Ways to Change the Perception of PR – Spin Sucks – By Glenn Ferrell
- Objectivity (journalism) – Wikipedia
- World News From Every Angle: Mondokio – By Brady Calestro
- Right to a fair trial – Wikipedia
- Perp walk – Wikipedia
- Gini Dietrich on Twitter
- Spin Sucks
- The Communication Industry Has a Perception Issue – Spin Sucks – By Gini Dietrich
- Dark Side (Star Wars) – Wikipedia