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The public relations industry has a real PR problem

28Aug Posted by Sara Benwell

We’re in the business of communications. We strive every day to help our clients enhance their reputations, develop consistent messages that fit with their businesses aims, and ultimately create positive coverage. So why is it that the publication relations industry seems to be incapable of promoting itself?

I asked a cross section of my followers on Twitter, my colleagues and some clients (not a robust sample, but it’ll do to illustrate my point) to give their honest evaluation of the perceptions of the PR industry. Below is a sample of some of the more negative responses I got:

“In agencies, there is too much focus on getting clients through the door without considering whether they can really help them.”

“On the client side, some think it is a function that can simply be passed on to someone else, without understanding it is a vital part of management’s role.” ...

...“They seem to think that it is a box to tick rather than being fully engaged themselves”.

“The whole purpose of the industry is to manipulate the way people think. Makes banking and fur-farming seem wholesome!”

“Some PRs act as a barrier between journalists and their clients, rather than a facilitator.”

“PRs are just silly, blonde, public school people who don’t understand the companies they’re representing.”

“There’s an ongoing Hack vs Flack mentality which means that journalists and PRs will always be at each other’s throats.”

“Public relations is all about peddling deceit / misinformation.”

“Public relations is just a corporate term for propaganda or spin.”

Now obviously there were positive responses too, but I think this highlights that the public relations industry truly does have an image problem. But what can we do about it? I believe that the answer lies within two broad brackets: changing the way we communicate about ourselves and changing the way that we operate.

Changing the way that we talk about our industry

This should, in theory, be the easy side of the equation. It is, after all, the business that we’re in.

• No more Hacks v. Flacks

The first thing that needs to happen is that we stop all of these “20 reasons that journalists are difficult to work with” articles. I know these are often retaliatory, and many are coming from the other side as well, but at the end of the day we should be working towards one common goal – and these kinds of articles only perpetuate the problem, rather than helping it. When it comes down to it, journalists are looking for news, and we want to provide them with news. If we keep that in mind, we should reach a place where journalists actually see us as providing a service, rather than as annoying people who get in the way.

• Better news and insights

I think we need to take a long hard look at our own communications – and really think about whether they are achieving our aims. As I wrote here earlier – good public relations is all about understanding business, and most people I know are a wealth of knowledge about their clients and the industries they work in. So could we stop contributing features on the top ten things to remember when writing a press release, and instead show articles and comments from our industry leaders looking at the real financial value that reputation has to business, and the real wealth of knowledge that we have. This applies to our owned content too! Let’s start blogging in a way that really shows what we can do and what we believe in.

• Less of the ‘dark arts’ coverage

Before writing this, I carried out some research looking at how public relations has been covered in the national press. I found that almost exclusively the articles were ones like this, looking at how terrible the public relations industry is, and how we’re all simply laundering reputation for unethical companies. This is a real shame, as it gives the industry a bad name. We need to find a new way of communicating with the media so that every story isn’t a negative one. Almost everyone I know counsels their clients towards transparency – surely that alone is enough to dispel some of these myths.

• Find a better way of defining what we do

I asked people to try and define public relations in the space of a tweet, and everyone struggled. As an industry, we need to find a better way to communicate what we’re about. If we don’t want to be seen as shady immoral characters, or worse simply churning out press releases, we need to express ourselves in a manner that communicates the depth of value that we can bring to both our clients and the media.

Changing the way we act

Changing the way we talk about ourselves in the press and on our own websites / blogs isn’t enough, we have to make sure that as an industry we embody the values we communicate. If we don’t, we’ll never change the general perception.

• Change the way we communicate with journalists

Every time we pick up the phone to pitch a journalist, we’re influencing their opinion of how the public relations industry works. If we don’t want to be seen as silly, public school people who act as a brick wall between the journalists and our clients, we need to change the way we interact. For example, make sure you have your fund fact sheet to hand before you pitch a journalist, or that you understand everything that’s on a press release, to show that we are educated and interested people who want to help rather than hinder.

• Change the way we communicate with clients

We need to make sure that we have a renewed focus on return on investment and measuring success. We need to be able to show clients and potential clients that public relations really can generate leads and positively impact the bottom line.

• Promote transparency

We need to make sure we’re transparent about who we’re working for and what we’re doing. If we can’t do that, then we’ll never stop being seen as working in the business of spin.

I truly believe that if those of us who work in public relations rethink the way in which we communicate and operate our businesses, we can save the reputation of the industry, and frankly if we can’t take care of our own reputations, who on earth is going to let us take care of theirs?


Public Relations


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