Nixon stuck the boot into PR's reputation

If you want to blame someone for the fairly dreadful reputation the PR profession has been saddled with, blame Richard Nixon.

Ruth Wyatt: 'There has been too much emphasis on the communications aspect of PR rather than on its ability to change behaviour.'
Ruth Wyatt: 'There has been too much emphasis on the communications aspect of PR rather than on its ability to change behaviour.'

Apparently it was he who first popularised the notion that bad news and damning information could be buried or neutralised if it were PRed, thus consigning the discipline to the dark arts and painting its practitioners as hustlers, shysters and obfuscators.

This insight comes from one of the founding fathers of modern PR, Harold Burson, whose career spans some 60 years and who was voted (by this organ) the 20th century's most influential PR figure. The 92-year-old founder of Burson-Marsteller was in London this week, among other things to share his reflections on the changing face of corporations.

Burson, who continues to work for the agency, talked about the changing nature of PR and pointed out that there has been too much emphasis on the communications aspect of the discipline rather than on its ability to change behaviour.

That comment speaks volumes about the relative importance of the strategic and functionary elements of the business - something reflected in a recent PRCA In-House Benchmarking Survey.

More than half of in-house comms teams described themselves as functionaries who spread the word and, crucially, carry out the instructions of others.

Burson was reasonably laid-back about the reputation of PR - no surprise, given that he probably has seen it all and done it all during his immensely long career.

'There's a lot of adverse publicity out there that we'd all rather not have, but PR is one of the few (sectors) that's continuing to grow,' he said.

He pointed out that if you ask journalists about PR generally, they are almost always pejorative in response, but ask an individual about an individual and most often you get a pretty positive answer.

It was a good thing to point out to a room full of PR people and the odd journalist lurking in their midst. Knowing your individual worth is important, but there is clearly much work to be done on the reputation and standing of the business as a whole.

On that note, PRWeek is delighted to report that peace has broken out between the CIPR and the PRCA, which have pledged to work together, 'to speak with one voice' and to create a joint code of conduct. They are starting to work together on the production of a film to explain the value of PR to the business community next week.

ruth.wyatt@haymarket.com

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