(We’re taking a break from our usual lovable business advice column to bring you the following message)
Public Relations has a PR problem.
I know, a lot of people have heard that very lead over the years. But we really have a problem, and it’s getting worse, not better. In the past few years we’ve seen things from prominent PR firms astroturfing online campaigns to loosely-termed “PR Reality TV” shows provide an unrealistic view of public relations, an ABC show that portrays us all with a fine veneer of “we’ll do anything to save our clients” BS, and some of our worst representatives getting the most attention from the press. (Lizzie Grubman ring any bells?)
And what do we in PR do about it?
I remember when I finally received my degree in PR and advertising. Not more than thirty minutes after commencement I was talking with my dad, who congratulated me on finally getting the degree and then dropped a verbal pipe bomb of his own on me.
“Congratulations. You’re now a professional bullshit artist.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have to step up and take back what it is public relations professionals do for a living. We have allowed this to happen. Years of not pointing out the weak actions of public relations professionals have allowed the media, and those activists who love to attack us as corporate liars, to frame us as unethical, lying bastards.
But these same people never want to be held up to the same standard of professionalism. The irony in this is that the same members of the media and activists (right or left, anti-corporate or not) who decry public relations as craven “spin masters” and liars who are busy “telling people what to think” use many of the same tactics created by public relations practitioners throughout the years on their own supporters. If we’re going to hold PR people up to a predisposed view, then these detractors need to be held to the same standard.
(It’s called the “Agenda Setting Theory” and we’ll get into a soon enough. But let me say with the increase in digital media, PR people have many new means to hold the media up to our own standards.)
It is because of public relations’ poor image that those professionals whose work is exemplary, people who should be held up as examples of ethical practitioners with a strong work ethic are immediately under suspicion of being “just another flack.” It’s true that there are poor PR professionals, those who haven’t been trained in PR (yes, a successful PR pro is trained beyond just the regular view of “I’m a writer” or “I’m a people person”), just like there are unethical journalists, or bad teachers, or misleading activist groups.
“If we’re not running offense, we’re running defense. And if we’re not playing defense… there’s some clever sports analogy that explains what happens then.”
Allison Janney as “C.J. Cregg”
“The West Wing”
Our default view as communications professionals appears to be one of “we’re writers. We communicate. We’re ‘people’ people.” What we don’t promote enough, or study enough, is the importance of strategy in communications and in business. (which involves quite a bit of research (which you’ll learn when you start to study for your APR or a business degree)
We are rarely brought into the upper echelon decision making, because we’re not only seen as, but want to promote ourselves as, just “writers.” According to a 1999 white paper by crisis management expert Jim Lukaszewski, a management consultant explained to public relations professionals why they would rarely be able to address the concerns of the C-Suite. And it was a shock to many of the PR professionals in the audience. For all of our talk about the importance of communicating and writing in public relations, few professionals are able to show the C-Suite the impact that we have on those numbers that are important to them. Finances, sales, increase in profits.
(And don’t give me the “advertising equivalent” argument – that’s the biggest load of BS that public relations has ever come up with)
I give PRSA some credit for trying to improve the professionalism of practitioners around the country, with the APR program and now the organization’s new MBA initiative, tying public relations closer to business schools (where it needs to be). This is only the start of the necessary push to improve public relations’ image. It took us a long time to dig into this hole, it’s going to take us a long time to get out of it.
Why should PR professionals stick up for what we do? I’ll let Ron Silver’s character from “The West Wing” respond for me. (please ignore the politics if it’s not your thing, but the underlying sentiment is solid.)