The industry speaks on how PR can improve its reputation

The comments have flooded in following PRWeek's invitation to debate how best to improve the PR industry's image. Ruth Wyatt presents a selection of the most insightful observations.

Alan Edwards
Alan Edwards

In light of recent scandals to hit the PR profession, we asked readers to share their thoughts on what it should do about its reputation. Do PR people accept there is a problem? And, if so, how best to go about 'PRing' PR? And with whom? Is it a matter for individuals or trade associations?

There is no question Joe Public is increasingly media savvy. People talk about PR in a knowing way in social media, but all this demonstrates is the public thinks it knows what PR means - not that it understands or appreciates it.

Is the public a lost cause? Should we concentrate our efforts on improving our standing with our primary commercial audience instead? And if so, can we do that without an agreed form of measurement - a meaningful way to prove the worth of PR?

Here are some thoughts plucked from PRWeek's postbag.

Steve Earl, Zeno managing director

In PR we've spent far too long doing our industry's PR badly. Too few people understand what we do and how we can provide value. The public perception seems to be a long way off the mark and the PR buyer's perspective seems to be mixed. The potential for more measurable value is becoming better acknowledged but too few understand how we can provide it. This is despite the steps that have undoubtedly been made to modernise and professionalise what we do - so we really need to practise what we preach better and somehow do better PR for PR. We have never clarified how we deliver value. When traditional media were king, the value of PR was supposed. With digital media there is nowhere to hide. The quality of the work you do is immediately apparent. That harbours a really good commercial opportunity if we take it and use it to show what we do and why it is valuable. It's a huge potential threat if we don't.

Alan Edwards, Outside Organisation CEO

Ironically the best thing the PR industry can do to recover/protect its reputation is to mount a traditional PR campaign. The industry needs to come up with a joint strategy. It urgently needs to explain to the public (after all, PR stands for public relations) what it is the industry does and clear up some of the widely held misconceptions. For instance, someone who sells stories to tabloid newspapers isn't a PR professional.

The PR industry is focused on presenting clients' products in the best possible way, without misleading or lying to the public. Phrases like 'spin' need to be dropped from the PR Industry phraseology as they suggest a dishonest approach. A good PR would never want to or need to invent a story. This needs to be made clear. There are approximately 60,000 people employed in the PR world and the vast majority of them are extremely hard-working, conscientious and creative individuals. It should be noted the industry not only employs a lot of people,but is continuing to grow ... surely something to be nurtured and cherished in the middle of a recession.

Once a collective approach has been agreed, the industry desperately needs an authoritative spokesperson to get out there and talk us up.

Lord Bell, Bell Pottinger Private chairman

The reputation of the PR industry should be based on what it does well or badly. There are very few people who are really good at it and not enough people who will talk about the real skills - the strategic importance of the business. It is a competitive industry so people don't want to talk (publicly) about the important stuff. Some industry figures seem ashamed of it and the balance of reporting is skewed towards the bad stuff, but companies are spending more money on it, so its reputation is not harming the business.

Aileen Thompson, Aileen Thompson Associates founder

On the one hand the sector is performing well. PR agency income in the UK appears to be on a general upward trend, according to the last PRWeek Top 150 PR Consultancies survey. In-house, PR is having an influence in the boardroom: the Watson Helsby report from September 2012 found that out of 93 FTSE 100 firms, 73 per cent employ a corporate affairs director; 76 per cent of these report to the CEO; 46 per cent of corporate affairs directors sit on FTSE company executive committees.

And yet, we've all seen poor examples of business behaviour that has implicated the PR industry's reputation. But is it having an impact on our own bottom line? These figures seem to suggest not - or at least not yet.

Firstly, are the failings besetting the PR profession any more - or less - than other industries or sectors? Ours is a people-based industry and so there will always be a few rotten apples in the barrel. I'm not convinced that because reputation is at the heart of what we all do, this somehow provides a ring of steel around the PR industry's ability to always do the right thing. It clearly doesn't.

What matters is how individually and collectively we manage the bad days, the bad news and the bad people who by their own actions taint our reputation.

My second point is whether we are passionate enough to put time and effort into addressing this for the good of the profession, or whether individually we can make a positive difference. I suspect there is a bit of both already under way, but more may be needed and it's not an 'and/or' situation.

Francis Ingham, PRCA director general

It's time to stop beating ourselves up. As other industries shrink, ours grows. We should develop the confidence to say that loud and proud - to celebrate the value of what we do. We should also drop this puppy-dog desire to be loved, and aim instead to be respected. That is so much more important. The debate about being a 'profession' or an 'industry' is utter navel-gazing - we should be professional and be valued. What we call ourselves is worth nothing on the bottom line. It is irrelevant to clients or senior colleagues. Professional skill is what they value. We also need to be ethical. Codes of conduct matter. And I'd repeat the offer we have made previously - a combined industry code of conduct to which all the main representative bodies can ascribe would be of great value. We're prepared to sign up to that. I hope others are too.

Peter Walker, Pielle Consulting senior consultant

The UK is a society that does not hold training and qualifications for commercial vocations in much regard - hardly surprising that the concept of tutelage has been abandoned inside most organisations, and professional firms and consultancies in particular.

The CIPR worked hard to acquire a royal charter and be regulated by the Privy Council but does it really get support from the employers of PR people? Does it really take seriously its role as the arbiter of professional practice standards as a chartered body? Government sees a royal charter-based body as the answer to Leveson but is the Privy Council equipped to regulate the bodies it endows with a royal charter?

At this point you go back to square one and the task that will take a generation and more to ensure professional vocational qualifications are mandatory. I would like to think my baker is qualified to bake bread, the builder and self-employed bricklayer is qualified, the car mechanic adjusting my brakes has more than just experience behind him. Let's set up a German or Swiss-type system for training coupled with a US-style system of local/regional regulation. Let's use it to inspire enthusiasm for what we produce as professionals rather than consume. Time to take what we do seriously again.

Sue Wolstenholme, CIPR president

Membership of a trade or professional body marks some out for having signed up to abide by a code of conduct, which is a big step towards being accountable. But even among those small numbers, as compared with the whole industry, only a few are qualified and have thereby shown that they know what they're doing with that most valuable of assets, a reputation. The CIPR has developed a rigorous and extremely worthwhile system for individuals to become chartered. Once they have won that designation, a practitioner can definitely be regarded as a professional. The accountancy world is full of examples of bad practice, including a great deal of fraud cases. No company would hire an accountant who is not chartered to look after their financial assets and so they should look to hire a chartered public relations practitioner to take care of the most important asset that they have: their reputation. The CIPR code of conduct, the qualifications, the CPD system and the charter are all evidence of a body determined to do something to create a profession and provide a good reputation for it.

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