There was some very interesting feedback both in comments and e-mail to my post on addressing PR’s perception problems. I thought the comments (and some other recent postings elsewhere) justified a second post.
A common theme was that while the good repuation of the majority is sullied by the acts of a select few, the profession’s inherent resistance to change is also hurting the business as a whole:
Dave Taylor wrote:
“As with any profession, I suggest that it’s important to differentiate between The Profession itself, and the people who are in the profession. For example, I don’t think that either the legal profession or even car salesmen are inherently bad or slimy, but I certainly have come across individuals who I wouldn’t trust with an old rock, let alone my personal business. Further, I think that public relations is changing because of the Web, and while there are some folk who are denying this, the reality is that the Web has changed everything, particularly communication, both private and public. Companies that aren’t starting to think about how the Web and weblogs have changed the reality of their business and how they interact with their customers are going to find themselves irrelevant and obsolete.”
John Brissenden is in agreement with Dave:
“For all the ignorance surrounding PR there is no question that practitioners and clients have done themselves no favours. Too much of the industry is backward-looking, closed to new ideas, in denial when it comes to the ethical contradictions of PR, and regards serious academic – critical – study of PR as having nothing to offer practitioners. I think that can change, and I’d be interested to hear from practitioners with their views.”
I’d agree with much of the sentiment in these comments. We as a profession don’t do enough to both dispel the myths and address obvious cases of malpractice – and the professional bodies and associations are rarely to the the front on our behalf.
Peter West makes an interesting point, that while there is an innocent majority, we shouldn’t forget that there remains an institutional minority whose focus is on the “dark arts” – the very activities that have created the anti-PR environment within which we operate today:
“Good PR people help journalists by bringing to their attention stories and facts that might never come to the public’s attention. PR makes for an excellent home-based business and there are thousands of small PR agencies that work diligently to help their clients get the publicity they deserve. Now as a former vp of a national public relations company, I can confirm there is a dark side to PR. It is extremely well funded and motivated to put the “proper” spin on their clients’ reputations. This situation has always existed and likely always will. The good news is these well-dressed flacks are no match to one solitary journalist in search of the truth. The challenge is to find one well-trained, motivated investigative journalist. They are hard to find in these days of instant news coverage.”
So how do we address these issues?
Elizabeth Albrycht has some suggestions:
“But, attention aside, how do we go about this shifting of perception? I don’t think we can do it through the traditional command/control style marketing/advertising/PR techniques that the vast majority of our profession are still completely tied to. Creating a committee or another ethics document is not the answer. Participatory communications just might be. Engaging in the conversations that are occuring around the blogosphere, for example, as identifiable PR people.”
I have tried and failed on many occasions to engage with people online who have trotted out the usual uninformed sterotypes about PR. In the majority of cases their response is “you would say that” or “you’re trying to spin us”. In all cases they have been unable to provide me with any hard facts or personal experiences that have driven their beliefs. Rather, it’s mostly been a case of rash generalizations.
But I think Elizabeth (and check out her post for a lot of very interesting comments on this topic) makes a valid point. One of the major reasons behind this perception problem is the yawning vacuum. PR people rarely engage with detractors, there is no culture of calling out poor practice.
The more PR people publicly address these misconceptions, address shoddy work practices and highlight unethical behavior, the greater the chance that the discussion will at least move beyond these traditional stereotypes.
I don’t expect this situation to change in the near or medium term. This is a long term project. But the more practitioners stand up and meet issues head on, the faster we can at least expect a balanced discussion. Don’t rely on your professional body, get out and do it yourself.