PR's PR problem: can the industry improve its image with the public?

PRs rarely come off well in the media, as the stereotypes below illustrate, and our research reveals that public has an even more damning view. As its own reputation management continues to be a bugbear, we ask what needs be done about PR's PR problem.

PR stereotypes: clockwise from top left, Malcolm Tucker, Siobhan Sharpe, Edina Monsoon, Samantha Jones, CJ Cregg, Charles Prentiss.
PR stereotypes: clockwise from top left, Malcolm Tucker, Siobhan Sharpe, Edina Monsoon, Samantha Jones, CJ Cregg, Charles Prentiss.

It’s more than 20 years since Absolutely Fabulous first graced our screens. Since then the PR buffoon has become everyone’s favourite television stereotype. A mixture of ruthlessness, self-centredness, incompetence, entitlement and mendacity has created a string of enduring characters we all love to hate.

But those are fictional portrayals. Surely the man in the street can distinguish between entertainment and reality? Possibly not. If the latest research commissioned by PRWeek from One Poll is anything to go by, the PR industry’s public reputation has a long way to go before the industry can be seen in a positive light.

Of 1,000 people polled, 66 per cent believe that PR has a reputation problem, 78 per cent say that most PR campaigns can be characterised as ‘spin’ and 75 per cent believe the PR industry doesn’t care what the public think of it.

Scott Wilson, UK CEO and managing director EMEA at Cohn & Wolfe, says the PR industry is too apologetic for what it does in a world where most PR firms are rapidly expanding and moving deeper into the marketing services arena.

It’s a legacy issue, he argues, from the days when PR meant media relations – described by one agency head as going no further than writing a press release. "We have a tendency to self-flagellate as an industry in terms of how we define ourselves, how others define us, how we demonstrate our worth and how we measure our worth," Wilson says.

"The phrase ‘PR’ is the problem. With the realities of the client work at the moment, the phrase ‘PR’ compartmentalises us in a way that transforming modern agencies are leaving behind.

"Even the words ‘public relations’ have slightly more gravitas to them, but ‘PR’ is light and frothy and immediately takes you down the road of media relations, and further to publicity and spin." Wilson says the issue is now whether PR should settle with what others tag it as, or demonstrate its worth in order to climb further up the marcoms ladder? This is especially significant in a world when earned media is now part of every creative, media planning and buying meeting.

Self-doubt

He does admit that the reputation problem is still rife in PR, but that it is a reflection of an "apologetic past that we do have to address".

Colin Byrne, CEO, UK & Europe at Weber Shandwick, says the PR industry is just trapped in a cyclical reputational self-doubt that has befallen it on several occasions. It is something he does not readily understand, as he says that "PR’s reputation is very high, it’s very self-confident and it is growing at a pace on the back of money that would have traditionally gone to other disciplines".

It is this paradox that confuses him, as he points out: "The problem with the PR industry is that it has cycles of crises of confidence and self-esteem. I believe introspection is good for any industry as we constantly need to be listening and acting and evolving, but obsessive self-doubt is unhealthy."

He says that PR’s reputation, certainly within the marcoms community, may be actually enjoying a renaissance as "marketers question how much they are spending on ads that people are increasingly not watching".

Byrne observes that more executives are focusing on communications as part of their management training and that there has been an explosion in the number of PR courses, along with an increase of people wanting to come into PR from academic backgrounds who would traditionally have gone into law or the City.

This evidence is largely anecdotal, but is a sign that PR is clawing itself back from a reputational funk that many believe started with the political spin that became the norm during the 1990s on the back of New Labour and its "sexing up" of anything it could get its hands on.

"I was a political spin doctor in the late 1980s and early 1990s when spin became a dirty word and tarnished the reputation of an entire industry. The big names in the industry at the time and those written up in power lists were all involved in spin," Byrne points out, although he says that this has largely changed now.

Alison Clarke, CEO of Grayling and chair of the PRCA agrees: "The industry goes through waves of getting its knickers in a twist about people who might be bringing the nature of what we do into disrepute or making the industry look a little light.

"These waves of concerns have always existed and they come and go. I believe the industry has a much higher standing now than before."

Clarke believes the PR industry is "light years" away from where it once was and that the "odd stereotype or the odd mildly amusing piece in the media or on TV" shouldn’t be bothered about. If the industry starts to debate what this all means it indicates "we lack confidence in the standing we do have," she says.

"People get themselves into a lather about these things. That’s probably not a very PC thing to say, but that’s what I believe."

Wilson believes that the further stereotypes go, the further away they are from reality and they become caricature rather than satire. Therefore, the more absurd the portrayal of PR in the media is, the less damaging it is. 

"Is our reputation in the eyes of the general public still defined through these slightly historic stereotypes?" he asks. "Whether it’s Absolutely Fabulous or Malcolm Tucker, or even celebrity publicists or ‘event marketers’, for want of better words, it’s a characterisation that I just don’t see in people working across the industry."

The air-kiss and long-lunch culture has faded from view to be replaced by straight business collaboration with clients. 

He does, however, add a caveat. "That’s not to say there won’t be a remnant of blonde girls standing next to cars at the Geneva Motor Show or high-profile celebrity spinmeisters who seed into red-top newspapers, but it is such a world away from the reality of my day-to-day life that it doesn’t bother me, but it’s a truth nonetheless."

Marmite approach

Mike Love, chairman of Burson-Marsteller UK, takes the Marmite or Millwall, ‘love us or loathe us, it doesn’t stop us getting the job done’ approach. "We tend to be in a category with other lowlifes such as politicians, journalists and estate agents. I’m not aware that image stops us, or them,  getting any work," he says.

On the industry’s image in the wider media, he points out that "entertainment is just that, you shouldn’t take it too seriously", and that Tucker and his cohorts including Ab Fabs’ Edina Monsoon exist only in fiction.

Or do they? Love says: "It would be a problem if a client or potential client thought any of us were like either of those two. Although, come to mention it, I’ve met PR people in real life who resemble both characters – not that I watch TV trash, obviously."

Byrne points to a shift within the industry that may see the balance finally move away from the stereotypes for good: "The people who are admired in our industry are the creatives and the strategists, not just those with the black book of journalist and rock star contacts," he asserts.

But does it matter what the public thinks? The OnePoll/PRWeek research suggests that their opinions are not based on any real knowledge or insight. Only 15 per cent admit to ever having met a PR person.

However, the PR industry advises other industries on their reputation. The idea that anyone in PR could argue that their own industry’s reputation doesn’t matter seems a little odd.

"Of course general sentiment matters, even if it is uninformed," says Andrew Bloch,co-founder and group MD at Frank PR. "It affects everyone who works in PR," he says. "We should be proud of the industry we work in and public opinion affects that."

Although he doesn’t buy the idea that general sentiment will adversely affect PR’s image in the boardroom and among its direct customers, he does think that it could have a depressing effect on share prices .

Lord Chadlington, chief executive of Huntsworth plc, fears that poor reputation can start a downwards spiral in value. "Yes, it matters if for no other reason that you will only attract high quality people to an industry with a good reputation. Lower quality people could affect the standard of the service we offer clients." 

He has a point. The PRWeek survey found that two-thirds of those questioned don’t consider PR to be a good career choice. "High quality people now think twice about a career as a politician. The quality of law making has suffered as a result," says Chadlington.

The fact that the industry continues to grow is not necessarily evidence that there is no image problem, he argues. It is possible that the problem is being masked by other forces. "It’s more to with the increasing burden of financial regulation that has boosted demand for our services and the growth of social networking," he says.

Obviously PR clearly does have an image problem. The question is what to do about it? Clearly it needs to manage its reputation better, but the suggestion that the industry should mount some sort of PR campaign receives 
little support.

"It’s true that the industry typically does a far better job for its clients than itself. But the idea of the PR industry running a PR campaign for itself is so open to parody as to be a non-starter," says Warwick Smith, managing partner at Insitinctif Partners, formerly College Group.

Far better, he says that the industry should permanently change the way it talks about itself. "We need to be constantly prepared to talk about the very bright people we employ and the benefits we bring to broader society," says Smith.

Others think that a solution is for the industry to ‘professionalise’ itself. "People understand that chartered accountants and chartered engineers, for example, are accountable and adhere to valid professional standards," says Phil Morgan, director of policy and communications at the CIPR.

"People working in public relations can also claim professional status if they validate their skills, experience, qualifications, accountability and engage in continuing professional development in the same way. A key aspect of that is chartered status, he argues. "We aim to make chartered status the norm rather than the exception for public relations because it will build trust and deliver better outcomes for clients, employers and the general public."

Malcolm Tucker 

(Peter Capaldi) 

The Thick of It/In The Loop

(Credit: Rex features)

The master of machine gun profanity hit our screens in 2005 in the then programming dungeon known as BBC Four. Thanks to a razor-edged script from Armando Iannucci and a thinly veiled caricature of the spin doctor du jour expertly portrayed by Peter Capaldi, the show soon achieved higher exposure on BBC Two.

Described as "Iago with a BlackBerry" by The Spectator, with The Times warning "if you make eye contact with Malcolm Tucker you have spilled his pint", this director of communications for the Government reflects both a Machiavellian side to the profession and a ruthlessly efficient one – striking fear into the hearts of his colleagues and high-powered ministers in equal measure. No one dares to even breathe, let alone give an unsolicited quote, without Tucker’s say-so.

Described in the series as having the "physical demeanour and the political instincts of a velociraptor", he is not above using smear tactics to achieve his ends. He walks the floor of government departments with his increasingly unachievable urgent demands and now, split from his partner, Tucker lives for work. 

Most likely to say 

"Jesus Christ, see you… You’re a fucking omnishambles."

Least likely to say

 "Let’s brainstorm the issue and see if we can get some blue sky thinking going."

Catchphrase

Too many to mention, but "fuckety bye" to one particular adulterous journalist he has just threatened springs to mind.

Based on 

Thought to be based on Tony Blair’s attack dog and former director of communic-ations and strategy Alastair Campbell.

Edina Monsoon 

(Jennifer Saunders) 

Absolutely Fabulous

(Credit: Rex features)

Eddie is the owner of a struggling fashion and celebrity PR house, with a client list including singer Lulu spanning the 1960s to the early 80s.

Joined at the hip to serial substance abuser, survivor of the 60s and sometime fashion editor Pasty Stone, Eddie was almost solely responsible for adding brands Christian Lacroix and Harvey Nicols to the public lexicon.

Eddie professes to be a Buddhist, a vegetarian and an environmentalist, but only when it suits her. She is the epitome of the public image of the fashion and ’sleb PR, with phrases such as "fash mag slag" tripping off her tongue.

Eddie’s outrageous wardrobe is one of her ways of projecting the aura of success, wealth and fabulousness, as is the constant upsizing and renovating of her home. Ever status conscious, she loudly clarifies that her house is in Holland Park whenever someone identifies the neighbourhood as the less upmarket district of Shepherd’s Bush.

Most likely to say

 "It’s fabulous darling." "Champagne for Lulu" has now become a catchphrase in itself among the gay community.

Least likely to say

Anything of any substance.

Catchphrase 

"Sweetie, darling."

Based on

Thought to be inspired by Lynne Franks.

Charles Prentiss

(Stephen Fry)

Absolute Power

(Credit: BBC pictures)

If there’s one thing Charles Prentiss doesn’t possess, it’s a moral compass. The only direction the co-founder of Prentiss McCabe is set on is towards money and power.

"He’s a brute of a man, out to win, with no morals; he’s completely shameless. There’s not much to say that’s nice about him, except that there is some pleasure in watching a natural born killer at work and knowing whatever happens he will win," says Stephen Fry, who played him in both the original radio drama and the television series.

Prentiss is ably backed by Martin McCabe, portrayed as the brains behind Prentiss’ ruthless hunger for prey.

Reflecting a key trait of the PR industry (and many more besides), McCabe is capable of brilliant ideas, which inevitably are presented as all the work of Prentiss by the time they get to the client. Prentiss is a born egotist who claims that Watergate was only a monumental cock-up "because I wasn’t there".

The original radio show courted controversy when the BBC shelved an episode dealing with the Hutton Inquiry and then reinstated it, but removed a section describing the then Prime Minister Tony Blair as a liar.

Most likely to say

 "If there’s one thing better than having a first-class mind, it’s being a first-class bastard." 

Least likely to say 

"Shouldn’t we consider the moral implications?"

Catchphrase 

"How low would you like me to sink, exactly?"

Based on 

Draw your own conclusions.

Siobhan Sharpe 

(Jessica Hynes)

Twenty Twelve, W1A

(Credit: BBC pictures)

The undisputed star of Twenty Twelve and, no doubt, its sequel W1A, which is set in the BBC, Sharpe is from Harpenden, but thinks she is a PR power player from the US and is ambitious with her dial set to transmit.

Excitable but ultimately clueless, she is head of brand at agency Perfect Curve and getting the Olympics account was the biggest thing to happen to her scarily believable agency.

She answers questions with PR speak that means little or nothing and never turns her phone off during meetings.

According to her official BBC biography "most of the time she isn’t in a relationship because relationships – like lunch and listening – are for wimps". It also states that she is an expert in all aspects of communications theory, with the single exception of how to apply any of it. She is also the inventor of the Jubilee/Olympics PR babble hybrid ‘Jubilympics’. 

The problem with Hynes’ portrayal of Sharpe is that it’s all too believable. Twenty Twelve was so close to the mark that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) even suggested the writer John Morton had a mole within its ranks.

Most likely to say 

"If you get bandwidth on this, you’ve got maple syrup on your waffle at the get-go."

Least likely to say 

Anything comprehensible.

Catchphrase 

"Let’s roll the tortoise here guys and not boil the ocean…"

Based on 

The LOCOG communications operation. Allegedly.

Claudia Jean ‘CJ’ Cregg 

(Allison Janney)

The West Wing

(Credit: NBC via Gettiy Images)

CJ is the straight-talking White House press secretary in the administration of President Josiah Bartlet.

A National Merit scholar, CJ attended William’s College and later earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. She was making $550,000 a year from her work at PR firm Triton Day before being fired and coming to work for Bartlet’s 1998 presidential campaign for $600 a week ($31,200 a year). She is not pleased with her secret service codename ‘Flamingo’ and suffers jokes about her height.

CJ eventually succeeds Leo McGarry as White House chief of staff and is initially warmly received. The press briefing room gives CJ a standing ovation on Bartlet’s announcement of her appointment. Although she receives criticism due to her lack of foreign policy experience, she eventually plays a key role in ending a humanitarian crisis in Sudan.

Most likely to say

 "I’m the enforcer. I’m going to crush him, I’m going to make him cry and then I’m going to tell his mama about it."

Least likely to say

 "Yes Mr President."

Catchphrase 

"I’d mop the floor with him, smirk first."

Based on 

Supposedly loosely based on President Bill Clinton’s press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

Samantha Jones 

(Kim Cattrall)

Sex and the City

(Credit: Rex features)

Incessant shagger and PR agency owner Samantha Jones divides her fabulously glamorous New York life between dates with her girlfriends, shopping, accessorizing, screwing anyone who crosses her path and occasionally throwing parties for her PR clients.

Although Jones’ PR clients are never a main part of the programme, the plot of the film Sex and the City 2 includes an approach from an Arab sheikh to devise a PR campaign for his business, as he offers to fly her and her friends on an all-expenses-paid luxury trip to Abu Dhabi. Predictably Jones blows the opportunity by falling foul of local attitudes towards sexual conduct.

Jones’ PR lifestyle shows the more glamorous and some would say unrealistic side of PR, mixing with celebrities, planning parties and drinking expensive cocktails with not an ounce of actual work in evidence.

Most likely to say

 "I love you, but I love me more."

Least likely to say

 "No."

Catchphrase

 "I will not be judged by you or society. I will wear whatever and blow whom-ever I want as long as I can breathe and kneel."

Based on 

The conflation of every vacuous PR in the Big Apple.

(Picture credits, from top: Rex Features/Rex Features/BBC Pictures/BBC Pictures/NBC via Getty Images/Rex Features)

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.

News by email...