REPUTATION: The PR challenge - How would you improve the reputation of the PR industry in the coming year? PRWeek asks some of the practitioners whose views featured in the media in 2001

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

20 March.

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

goes wrong.

'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

media-driven campaign.

'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

and "suits".

'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.'

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