Last year will probably go down in PR history as one of the most
challenging for the industry's reputation. Curiosity about PR, while not
new, scaled new heights in 2001. This was made all the more galling by
journalists' continued indifference towards the very real advances being
made in terms of professionalism.
PR practitioners continue to gain respect and influence at the highest
level of commercial and public sector organisations, and the gravitas of
the players and healthy profit margins have made PR agencies an
increasingly attractive acquisition, with record fees paid for top
talent. Yet at a time when advisers should have been revelling in the
recognition of their value, the public and media perception of PR
appeared to go into freefall.
The open season on PR kicked off in April with the now ubiquitous 'fake
sheikh' scandal, the effect of which extended far beyond the doors of
RJH. In May, Brunswick came under fire for an alleged leak of client
information, followed by allegations by Jupiter Asset Management of a
dirty tricks campaign later in the year, over which the threat of legal
action still hangs.
On 11 September, the name 'Jo Moore' entered the English language as
shorthand for insensitivity in the face of tragedy following an e-mail
instruction to 'bury bad news'. Then in the final quarter, the FSA
trumpeted its intention to claim high-profile scalps among the financial
PR community; Piers Morgan launched an attack on celebrity PROs and
Simon Heffer sparked a debate on the role of PRWeek's PR Professional of
the Year, Mark Bolland.
And behind these main events ran a counterpoint of diary stories often
sparked by little more than an unimaginative press release. By the end
of the year, it was clear that the industry was in urgent need of its
own reputation management.
So, in this first issue of 2002, PRWeek has issued a PR challenge to a
number of practitioners - to devise a campaign to help improve the
reputation of the PR industry in the coming year. Our participants have
all featured as media commentators on this industry, and so have a
unique opportunity to influence the future perception of this
Julia Hobsbawm, Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications founder and chief
executive (who until recently ran HMC jointly with Sarah Macaulay, wife
of Chancellor Gordon Brown), has become a regular commentator on the
industry, writing for The Observer, Guardian, Independent and Evening
Standard. Lord Bell, Chime Communications chairman, remains one of the
most high-profile representatives of the PR industry. Lewis
Communications chief executive Chris Lewis launched a blistering attack
on both the IPR and the PRCA in the pages of The Financial Times earlier
this year, attracting condemnation from some quarters that he had
further undermined the reputation of PR among a crucial target audience.
And finally, no survey of this type could be complete without a
commentary from the ever controversial Max Clifford, who is indelibly
imprinted on the public consciousness as Britain's most famous 'PR
The brief was to produce a campaign with the aim of restoring the
reputation of the industry, including specific objectives, strategy and
Not surprisingly some of the participants have taken a more
idiosyncratic approach than others. However, all have strong views and
often divergent perspectives on the business of PRing PR - and in the
case of Max Clifford, downright risque: he recommends blackmailing media
These and other issues will be discussed at the forthcoming PRWeek
conference: PR and the Media; More Spinned Against than Spinning (how to
improve your relationship with the media) at the Dorchester in London on
Max Clifford will be among a range of speakers from the media and PR
world including Mirror editor Piers Morgan, BBC journalist and author
Nicholas Jones, Sunday Times City editor Kirstie Hamilton, New Statesman
columnist Amanda Platell, MoD director general of communications Martin
Howard and media consultant John Stonborough.
For further information contact 020 8267 4011 or e-mail conferences
JULIA HOBSBAWM, Hobsbawm Macaulay
'Have you ever heard of a clever fashion model or a happy undertaker?
Everyone suffers at the hands of stereotyping. Why should we, in PR, be
more loved or understood than accountants, doctors, teachers,
politicians, journalists or the police? We shouldn't, but we should at
least be able to turn to ourselves to putting our image right when it
'The heart of every organisation, industry, and sector is influenced by
and dependent on PR, which has arguably risen through the marketing mix
to pole position.
'The prime audience are our many "publics" and our bosses: the chief
executive at the top of the food chain who controls the access, status
and power accorded to in-house departments or the opinion-formers and
business, political leaders and trade experts in every sector who could
become a client.
'Everyone is a public of one kind or another. So this has to be a
'Who would run such a campaign? The leading professional trade
organisations. The PRCA and the IPR should join forces on this.
'So should the media. Our eternal sparring partner should get involved
in supporting, not biting, the hand that feeds it. The PR activists who
must drive the defence of our industry must not be afraid to stand up to
media criticism or to point out that much of our work has nothing to do
with getting coverage.
'PR must clearly have standards and challenge anyone practising who does
not have these standards. Ambssadors of best practice should be
nominated through the industry, the universities and colleges teaching
PR, media and journalism and via the trade press and national media
'This has to be about those at the coal face, not just the famous PR
industry faces. The plethora of individuals and teams who oil the
communications wheels around the country.
'A Best Practice panel comprising media, consumers, academics and
practitioners should see submissions, rather like advertising's highly
successful D&AD (Design and Art Direction) and its famous Yellow
Pencils. There's your evaluation method too.
'PR has never taken itself seriously enough to go public with a campaign
about itself to a broad and crucial audience.
'This is not just a job for the PR trade bodies. We know we've got more
good eggs than bad, more to contribute to good corporate and social
practice than at any other time in history, literally. So let's get out
and say it.'
LORD BELL, Chime Communications
'"What we need is better public relations." These words ring around many
a boardroom table and normally precipitate a review of existing
relationships, the inevitable competitive pitch, a decision followed by
disappointment and a re-run of the whole thing a few years later. Why?
Because just like our clients, our industry is judged by the court of
public opinion, and, just like our clients, there is frequently a gap
between perception and reality.
'Currently, the perception of the PR industry is that it is about media
relations, crisis management, image-building and promotional support for
other marketing activities.
'That may be the reality with many PR agencies. We, however, believe
that it should be about helping clients to create, build and protect
stakeholder and shareholder value, developing mutually more rewarding
relationships and ensuring sustainable success.
'It is this understanding of our industry that would enhance its
reputation among the key target audience - which we would see as senior
client management, potential employees, commentators and
'No campaign can be mounted for our industry. There is no umbrella
organisation, no budget and no will. Ours is a highly competitive,
aggressive and fragmented industry. The fact is, the industry is
succeeding, clients are spending more not less, they are taking public
relations more seriously, not less, and more senior management is
getting involved and recognising its value.
'If PR's reputation is suffering, it doesn't seem to matter. The more
Max Clifford and Alastair Campbell hog the headlines, the better.
Meanwhile, we can get on with the only thing that truly matters -
success for our clients.
'When I was running Saatchi & Saatchi, we set out to demonstrate that
advertising agencies were also businesses. Well run, they were
effective; badly run, they would soon disappear.
'Good businessmen like to work with other people with the same skills.
Good PR companies offer the client community an understanding of our
role and function complementary to and essential to a business's
'The perception of the industry does matter, but not as much as the
'The only way to overcome the bad perception - if it exists - is to make
the reality more widely known and the benefits of good public relations
more highly valued.
'The message I would send the industry is the same that the people of
Britain should send their government. Stop talking about it, and to
quote Nike, "Just do it".'
CHRIS LEWIS, Lewis Communications
'Lewis would be flattered by the invitation to present a proposal, but
would respectfully decline. There are clearly three audiences among whom
the PR industry ought to improve its reputation - the general public,
the business community and the media.
'It would be unrealistic and uneconomical to convince the general
public. Also, Kaiser Wilhelm said that a butcher's customers should
never see their sausages being made. I think the same thing can be said
about the media. The other two areas are worth the effort, but not
without real and substantive change in the industry. To PR the PR
industry without real changes to the way it deals with its primary
customers would simply compound the problem - spin spinning spin. Change
is needed in both style and substance.
'There are seven pillars of wisdom that underpin our professional
credibility. There are too many "wanky" creatives. To be seriously
creative, you must be disciplined and enforce standards. This means
punctuality, presentation and performance.
'Not enough proprietors reinvest profits or their time. That's why
badly-trained staff sit on broken furniture, in shabby offices with weak
leadership. This also knocks onto equity structures. Because "creatives"
are nominally in charge, the real wealth is selfishly retained by owners
'This recession has followed a boom where there were just not enough PR
companies to go round. Fools prospered and experienced PRs and clients
hated it. So did everyone else. Now it's payback time.
'Criticism of industry bodies is always met with howls of injustice -
but these ideas need discussion. Firstly, individual and company
membership should be free. That way an inclusive industry forum could be
created. Revenue lost by offering free membership could be recouped by
database sales, a competing industry magazine to PRWeek and
'Thirdly, to remain discrete organisations they should become commercial
enterprises, run by full-time staff to make commercial margins.
'This is a vain business that attracts vain people. That's why at entry
level, candidates need to be put through the mill to check their
'Industry bodies could make much better use of the web, both in terms of
commercial interactivity and its own image.
'And finally, how many PROs make themselves constantly available outside
office hours and at weekends? The industry has to recognise that the
psychology of customer service dictates that it is only performance
above expectation that creates reputation.'
MAX CLIFFORD, Max Clifford Associates
'All is not lost and we can provide the perfect solution. Our unique
public information service enables us to receive priceless information
from the general public all over the world on just about everything and
everyone in the public eye, and lots that aren't.
'This information has provided us with a remarkable insight into the
private lives of those who control the media in this country:
publishers, editors, TV controllers and executives - those at the very
top of the national and international media pile.
'Video footage, pictures and recorded telephone conversations, provided
by the public from the Caribbean to Oxshott Woods, from White City to
Vauxhall, gives extremely entertaining, revealing and valuable
understanding of many powerful and influential media bosses.
'Armed with this kind of information, we would be able to encourage and
negotiate an entirely different attitude to PR from these media
'This would rapidly lead to consistently positive media exposure of the
collective and individual triumphs of the public relations industry
being displayed to the British public on a regular basis. Problem
'As, by pure chance, two of my existing companies, Slappers
International Plc and Orgasmic Exclusives (Cayman Islands Ltd),
virtually run themselves these days, I would be able to give sufficient
time to personally supervise this campaign.
'It would come under the auspices of my Maximum Impact Nurturing Great
Exposures division, or MINGE, as it is simply known worldwide.
'MINGE would create openings and achieve maximum penetration and
exposure from the media for the benefit and satisfaction of the entire
public relations industry.
'Even the most cynical among you would have to admit the continued
success that my company enjoyed last year in helping to display the real
Jeffrey Archer, Sophie Wessex, Michael Barrymore, Twanky and Buttons
Hamilton and Jonathan King to the entire British public, revealing all
of them in their full glory. In doing this, we played our part in
transforming the public perception of these talented individuals.
'My methods worked on them and I can say in all honesty would be just as
effective for your proud and precious industry.
'Now all that's necessary is for MINGE to receive a vast amount of
money, payable in advance to one of my offshore charitable trusts,
together with large amounts of cash in brown envelopes.'