'Times' article reminds industry that it must focus on credibility to avoid further damage

The PR industry needs strong voices. It might be a by-product of dealing with the profession's fundamental ambiguities, but sometimes it seems to lack focus and clarity about itself.

The PR industry needs strong voices. It might be a by-product of dealing with the profession's fundamental ambiguities, but sometimes it seems to lack focus and clarity about itself.

Some of the perspectives that came through in last week's New York Times piece were prominent, in part because of the conviction with which they were spoken. I agree with the perspective of my colleague across the page that the implication that agency ownership has a direct impact on its ethics is spurious.

But I also wonder if the reporter was able to really grab hold of a more compelling angle. Take it from one who covers PR every single day - it is incredibly difficult to get communicators to be specific about what they do, think, and believe.

One of the more problematic aspects of the article was how some of the points of view were constructed in such vague terms that they condemned the industry far more than was probably intended. For example, a professor from Syracuse University told the reporter, "PR has a PR problem. ...We have to get our own house in order before we go around advising clients what to do."

She was ostensibly speaking about the pressures created by the new media environment. But while many agree that a confusing matrix of bloggers, pundits, and spokespeople increases the need for vigilance and savvy media management, the assumption that PR industry professionals are not yet up to the task of navigating the environment is potentially damaging.

There is no ambiguity among industry leaders about the issue at the heart of the Ketchum/ Williams situation - pay-for-play is wrong, and the industry depends on the credibility of the media. That message was reflected in the article, but it was discrete. The article's call out - "Questions of ethics prompt an industry to begin soul searching" - leads to the erroneous assumption that the practice is widespread and would continue had someone not been caught.

It is time to deal in specifics. Lou Capozzi, CEO of MS&L, has been gathering information on the role of PR agencies in helping the government communicate not only well, but cost-effectively. "There are 20,000 new bills in Congress every year," Capozzi says. He points out that specialized expertise offered by PR firms would be difficult for any government agency to contain in-house, and that outside perspective improves the quality of the programs.

The Council of Public Relations Firms has committed, through a letter to members, to helping increase transparency in the way in which business is conducted, particularly in government contracts. Standards will be reviewed and updated as required. The Council has also launched a media-monitoring service to keep members aware of news on issues as they emerge.

The PRSA started out strong on this issue, not least in the mainstream media. But, when asked for details about what institutionally will follow, it is not yet ready to reveal them. That creates a gap for its membership that must be addressed.

As the professor put it, PR does indeed have a PR problem. Benevolent self-interest by firms and organizations alike might be the most powerful incentive of all to communicate clearly and compellingly about what it really stands for.

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