It’s no secret that public relations has got a pretty poor public
image, sitting somewhere between the polarised camps of ’fluff’ and
But a report published at the end of February by the PRCA set out to
measure for the first time the way in which PR is portrayed in the
media, with some interesting results (PR Week, 3 March).
The Image of PR report, sponsored by evaluation specialist Echo Research
and cuttings company Romeike and Curtice, involved the analysis of more
than 2,500 cuttings from the UK’s national media from the whole of
The objectives of the study were to determine the image of PR and
communication in the media - its potential strengths, weakness,
opportunities and threats, in terms of issues, spokespeople and
journalists. The PRCA also commissioned the report to meet its own PR
objectives of gaining more visibility and credibility.
Echo came up with a list of 100 factors by which to measure the
cuttings, looking at areas such as what had driven the coverage and what
messages were coming across. The context of the article, including
headlines and visuals, was also assessed, with each piece of coverage
being rated on a points system.
Overall, the coverage was neutral. But political reporting was the
driver of much of the coverage, and was the most unfavourable source of
Talk of ’spin doctors’ and their perceived manipulation gave the
coverage a negative slant.
There was a much more positive image of PR being projected from the
business community during 1999, however. CEOs were found to be good
endorsers of PR. with the most favourable sectors being retail, IT,
telecoms and consumer.
Individual papers were found to cover PR differently: the Daily
Telegraph, the Guardian, the Times and the Financial Times tended to be
positive, but much of the coverage in the Daily Mail and the Evening
Standard was unfavourable.
PR figureheads achieved a high profile during the year, spearheaded by
Alastair Campbell, Sophie Wessex and Matthew Freud, although mostly in
the context of their private lives rather than professional ability. Max
Clifford and Tim Bell were also among those practitioners who received
coverage in their own right as well as their clients.
The PRCA set up a forum on the same day as the publication of the report
to see how PR practitioners in a number of sectors, and journalists felt
about the findings. The round table was chaired by PRCA chairman Adrian
Wheeler, and attended by Clifford, Bell, Express writer Peter Oborne,
Hobsbawm Macaulay chairwoman Julia Hobsbawm; AOL Europe director of
corporate communications in the UK, Matt Peacock, and Echo Research CEO
The debate kicked off with discussion about whether the image of PR in
the media was fair. Hobsbawn is concerned that journalists are too quick
to criticise PRs when content-hungry papers rely on PR-driven
This sparked a lively debate on the relationship between journalism and
PR, with Oborne passionately defending the role of the journalist as an
uncoverer of truths, rather than being concerned with ’news
At the level of ’publicity stunts’, however, Oborne was scathing: ’Most
journalism is really about telling the truth as you see it, while PROs
often create the image that the truth is entirely malleable. In a lot of
cases, journalists and PRs are conspiring as to what is going out, and
that’s terribly damaging.’
Clifford was also frank about the ’game’ played by PROs and editors.
’Most of my time is spent keeping stories out of the press, not getting
them in. But when it’s an exclusive about the Blair baby or Jeffry
Archer, I make sure the paper is also full of plugs about my other
The question of whether the PR industry should risk becoming the
messenger, rather than the message inevitably reared its head. Bell says
this is undesirable since his only aim is to get good coverage for his
In contrast, Clifford says he loves the attention and doing interviews,
and he does not understand why the industry doesn’t do more of them to
get a better image across.
So does PR need a spokesman? Most of the panel though not, since PR is
such as broad church. There were mixed feelings about whether it was
necessary to go on the offensive to communicate the positive benefits of
PR. Bell points out that there is a balance between letting people know
that PR does a good job and the industry taking itself too seriously.
Most people, he says, like the business because it’s fun, satisfying,
diverse, full of interesting people, and challenging, rather than
because it is a ’fundamental axis of trade’.
Peacock says, however, that without being pompous, in-house roles
similar to his are crucial to corporate strategy and reputation.
’Corporate communications at its best is the corporate conscience - I
sleep easier now than when I was a journalist and was told to ’make it
Hobsbawm adds: ’It’s fine to be relaxed about PR, but the consequences
of not acting responsibly can be severely damaging. I am passionate
about the business and love the media relations end of it, but I hope I
act at all time with integrity.’
Where PR has achieved a prominent position within a corporation,
however, there are dangers as well as rewards. Philip Dewhurst’s
resignation from Railtrack may have been planned long before the
Paddington disaster, but the media didn’t see it that way.
Bell says: ’It’s bad for the industry if a man who is the public face of
a business is made the fall guy, but then it’s part of the job and the
messenger is frequently shot.’
So how did the PRCA view the report and the forum? Wheeler says he has
never heard a more fascinating discussion about PR and its obligations
to the public interest. ’I feel proud that the PRCA was the forum for
some of the industry’s most successful luminaries to speak so
passionately about what really matters to people who work in PR. The net
result was an enthralling session which everyone present wishes to
reprise later this year. This round table proved one thing above all
else: from whichever end of the PR spectrum they come, the industry’s
best-known practitioners believe implicitly in a code of ethics which
governs their conduct in every particular.’
The recommendations of the report are that focusing on the strengths,
especially the commercial usefulness of PR, is the key to providing some
counter-offensive against an image of the industry tainted by political
reporting. It is also suggested that the help of CEOs in areas where PR
is viewed favourably could help build media interest in business
stories, and human interest case studies for the mid-market press would
pay dividends at the level of influencing public opinion and attracting
But while the media are powerful agents in making or breaking the
reputation of an individual, a organisation or an industry, journalists
and their readers are not the only publics. Students are racing to be
part of a creative, exciting industry, and business leaders are starting
to be quite clear about the extent to which their ’corporate reputation’
or their ’image’ impacts on the success of their company. It’s only a
matter of time before this filters down more strongly into a wider
Since there is still no clear signal from the industry about whether it
wants to act with an ’image-building’ initiative, let alone what its
strategy would be, time, and continuing to do the best possible job for
clients, are the biggest factors it has on its side.