Picking our battles

PR has never had a stellar reputation - but does it matter?

PR has never had a stellar reputation - but does it matter?

PR pros are used to both explaining and defending their profession - it comes with the territory. But are they being overly defensive? Consider this: A Google search for "lawyer jokes" yields 415,000 hits. A similar search for "PR jokes," only 132.

Yet it's hard to think of a time when you heard a lawyer get genuinely upset that the public holds his profession in low esteem, and rarely do law journals lament the profession's reputation. In the end, no one tells lawyer jokes as much as lawyers do.

So why do PR pros spend so much time and energy contemplating the negative image of the image industry?

Among all the questions we ask on the topic - why can't the industry better explain its value to the public? Should we launch an industrywide campaign to improve the image of PR? - no one seems to be asking the most obvious question: Why is it so important what people think of the industry?

Impact of PR's image

Few people would agree that it's important to the practice of PR that its practitioners - and the industry as a whole - are well-liked. What's more, it's probably not even affecting business.

"It's like that wonderful line that Cher has in Moonstruck when she slaps Nicolas Cage in the face," says Stuart Elliott, advertising columnist for The New York Times. "Snap out of it!"

Elliott is firmly among those who think PR people spend too much time worrying about what the public thinks of them and not enough doing good work to earn the respect of people who really matter, like journalists and clients.

"I think if PR people would spend just a little less time obsessing over [their reputation] and spend a little bit of that time [doing] the basic parts of their job, it would be more constructive," he says.

Elliott is not alone. Gene Grabowski is a VP with Levick Strategic Communications, an agency that specializes in PR for law firms. As such, he knows a thing or two about how members of a disrespected profession cope with their bad reputation.

"Frankly, most successful lawyers are so busy doing legal work, they don't contemplate their image much," he says.

Of course, PR and law differ in some significant ways. Primarily, no one is ever required by law to hire a PR person. Lawyers, on the other hand, always have a reliable stream of new business, thanks to crime and lawsuits. If a CEO - or CMO, for that matter - doesn't think much of PR, he or she can do without. Even a celebrity in trouble can just ask his sister to do the job.

Or can he? There is plenty of evidence suggesting that professional PR help is hardly a luxury anymore.

"It's long been commonly accepted that you need a lawyer, but there's a feeling today that communications professionals are a necessity, too," continues Grabowski. "There's an acknowledgement today that the court of public opinion is every bit as important."

If he's right, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks of the industry. If you need a PR person, you have to hire one.

Indeed, Ray Kotcher, CEO of Ketchum, believes the industry's continued expansion contradicts talk of its bad reputation.

"Fortune said PR will be one of the fastest growing industries over the next 10 years in terms of employment. You see that most organizations' PR budgets are increasing, additional staff is being hired, and PR's role is being expanded," he says, citing this year's Public Relations Generally Accepted Practices Study by the USC Annenberg Strategic Public Relations Center.

"I don't think American business would spend that kind of money on something it didn't value," he concludes.

And even if some executives holding the purse strings don't see the value of PR, that's hardly a general perception issue. So a general campaign to make the world like the industry would be far too blunt a tool.

"I think the view of a CMO or a CEO is going to be much more influenced by their personal interactions with PR practitioners than by the general observation of how PR operates," says Jeep Bryant, global head of corporate communications for the Bank of New York Co. "So each CEO and CMO needs to be sold one by one on the value that PR can bring."

Still, there are those who insist the industry needs to spend more time polishing its overall image.

"The only thing anyone has in a professional-services business is their reputation," says Tom Nides, the departing CEO of Burson Marsteller. "All you're basically doing is selling yourself. So, no, I don't think [PR pros] are overly obsessed about it. They rightly should be."

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, the fact remains that the term "public relations" has a negative connotation in our culture. It's frequently used synonymously with "spin," "hucksterism," "obfuscation," and just plain "dishonesty." These are associations that go back decades - well before there was much of a PR industry - and they aren't likely to change anytime soon. No matter how assiduously we embrace the PRSA's Code of Ethics, columnists will still refer to empty gestures that no one in the industry should condone anyway - such as, say, a forum audience handpicked by a political figure to avoid debate or heckling - as "just a bunch of PR." So why fight linguistic connotations that will likely outlive us all?

The biggest indicator that the PR industry's image seems to have little to do with its actions is perhaps its mainstream media coverage. Early 2005 was arguably the most scandal-ridden time this industry has ever seen. The Armstrong Williams/Ketchum scandal, the "outing" of VNRs by The New York Times, and the continued bad news surrounding Fleishman-Hillard's alleged overbilling of the city of Los Angeles all combined into what seemed like a very dark moment.

Yet a review of the mainstream media's PR coverage over the past year, performed by CARMA International for this article, shows that the media's attitude toward PR hasn't really suffered. In short, the media seem to have a fairly consistent view of PR, regardless of what the industry does.

In fact, the industry's favorability rating was higher in May, at 55, than it's been since at least 2003. (This rating is based on media coverage; CARMA rates a 50 rating as neutral and anything higher than that as positive.)

Changing the perception

So if the impression of PR is more or less fixed in the public eye, and nothing the industry does will affect it, does that mean anything goes? Probably not.

"The one thing that stands in the way of our continuing to get larger budgets, often at the expense of other marketing disciplines, is the perception that we are telling less than the truth or that we're cutting corners. This is where I would put the Williams situation," says Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman.

"We've got to stop the bad [news], meaning we can't allow an Armstrong Williams situation," he says. "There can be no lack of clarity about that."

Other than that, perhaps the answer is simple: Learn to stop worrying and love PR.

"It just boils down to the individual person at the other end of the phone," says the Times' Elliott. "Do they keep their word? Do they do what they say they will? Will people step up to the plate when there's a negative development for their company as readily as when they have good news?"

These are the things that ultimately prove the industry's worth to journalists and clients. And if those constituents are being pleased, then, let's be honest - the rest just might be seen as a bunch of PR.

Image of PR in the media

CARMA analyzed media stories that mentioned PR to gauge favorability over a 19-month period. CARMA's ratings system shows 50 as a neutral rating. Anything above that is viewed as positive; anything below is negative. Below is a description of PR's coverage at selected points on the chart.

1. August 2004. First coverage of Fleishman-Hillard's alleged overbilling in LA appears. Stories on that particular issue were negative; however, there were a lot of other stories being discussed that were keeping the score around the 50 mark.

2. September 2004. The tobacco trial begins. Coverage of the trial often talked about the tobacco industry trying to deceive the public with PR.

3. October 2004. After the disastrous hurricane season, stories of Florida's efforts to promote tourism abounded. PR was cited positively as a tool to help attract business and tourists.

4. January 2005. The Armstrong Williams scandal and questions over VNR identification dominate coverage during this month. The vast majority of the messages conveyed that PR was used as a tool to deceive the public and distort reality. President Bush and his administration were often depicted in coverage as using PR to distort reality to make their policies look better.

5. May 2005. There was no one key element that drove this month's positive coverage. State campaigns to attract tourists continued. Stories focused on local development and tourism.

6. June 2005. Fleishman-Hillard LA GM Doug Dowie, at the center of the overbilling allegations, was indicted during this month. But there also was a lot of positive coverage during the month that caused the rating to stay relatively high, including that Wendy's used PR to stay in the forefront during the finger-in-the-chili issue.

7. July 2005. A Chicago Tribune profile of Dan Edelman was extremely positive and pushed PR's favorability rating up. However, continuing coverage of the Fleishman issue kept the favorability rating closer to neutral.

-Christie Casalino

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