PR in the spotlight

The media isn't as hard on the PR industry as many people think.

The media isn't as hard on the PR industry as many people think.

There is a deep-seated stereotype in the PR industry regarding the way it is viewed by the mainstream media: The press doesn't give public relations a fair shake. When PR is mentioned at all in media reports, PR practitioners are portrayed as spinmeisters, flacks, or worse - people trying to somehow secretly get people to do things they don't want. And there isn't a reporter out there who would admit that PR can serve a useful purpose. "Those of us in the profession tend to think we're not perceived very well," confirms Kristen Bihary, VP of communications with Eaton Corp. in Cleveland and an Arthur Page Society member. But now a first-of-its-kind survey commissioned by PRWeek and conducted by Washington, DC-based media analysis firm CARMA International is disproving some of those assumptions. To assemble its analysis, CARMA looked at 698 print and broadcast media stories that ran from January 1 to July 31 this year. It assembled that sample by searching for articles that mentioned PR specifically or - in a broader definition of PR - mentioned corporate or public image or reputation, explains Jennifer Hoffmann, the CARMA senior analyst who oversaw the study. Major business and consumer media, as well as newspapers in the top 50 US markets, were searched. Industry gets mixed media reviews CARMA found that 57% of the stories mentioning PR that it analyzed between January and July this year cast PR in a favorable light. Stories analyzed wrote about how PR can help rebuild image and change opinions. Research even found stories noting that PR could help improve corporate bottom lines. "The media looked very favorably on companies or other groups that were open with the public," says Hoffmann. "When PR was being discussed favorably, it involved proactive efforts." Even companies in crisis seem to benefit from using PR to get out their sides of the situations they faced, Hoffmann adds. Talking to the media in such cases "changed the dynamic of who was driving the story," she says. Not all the results of the CARMA analysis were positive for the PR business, however. Some show the industry still has work to do in explaining its role and in separating itself from old stereotypes about spin. Roughly 20% of the articles analyzed said that PR distorts reality. Other sizable numbers of articles framed PR as merely "publicity stunts" and PR pros as "spin doctors." Roughly 1% said PR is a waste of money while only 0.7% said PR is a respected industry. "We have not been our own best spokespeople," notes Matt Gonring, VP of global marketing and communications with Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee and an Arthur Page Society member. "It is still not universally understood what PR means. We need to do a better job of applying our knowledge to our function." Hoffmann notes that one area where PR was roundly criticized was in efforts to use it to change opinions about the US in the Middle East. Stories that wrote about such efforts were largely negative about PR. "What the media was saying is that PR is not going to make a difference there and that PR doesn't matter in this arena." Hoffmann says. The subject area that accounted for the largest chunk of articles found mentioning PR was politics/government with 123 articles - 66 mentioning PR unfavorably and 57 favorably. The next group was celebrities/films with 90 articles - 57 favorable, 33 unfavorable. While coverage of stunts in other arenas came in for negative coverage, in this category, stunts generally got favorable coverage, Hoffmann says. Michael Moore's promotion of Fahrenheit 9/11 was viewed as a successful stunt in the entertainment realm, as were efforts by Mel Gibson for The Passion of the Christ. Entertainment stunts viewed unfavorably included the Britney Spears-Madonna kiss and Janet Jackson's Super Bowl faux pas. Weber Shandwick CEO and chair-elect of the Council of PR Firms Harris Diamond says he's not surprised about negative coverage of stunts. Such criticism is "through the prism" of reporters who don't like working with PR people, he contends. For his part, Diamond says stunts are a necessary part of PR. "I'm in favor of events to communicate messages, I'm in favor of using backdrops. In a world where consumers and policy makers receive hundreds, if not thousands of messages per day, the ability to use an image is paramount." Diamond says that while he was encouraged by the positive messages about PR in the CARMA survey, he's not as concerned with media views on PR as he is with potential client views about the value of PR. That audience is definitely getting the message about PR's value, he says. "Companies recognize in today's world the ability to get articles written helps sales. I don't think there is any doubt that [PR] helps sales dramatically," Diamond says. One business-related stunt receiving favorable coverage was Ford's driving an Escape hybrid nonstop for 37 hours during the New York auto show, traveling 576 miles on one tank of gas. "As publicity stunts go, this is a pretty good one, with gasoline prices approaching $2 a gallon," said an April 15 Orlando Sentinel article. President tops PR-focused coverage Looking at who received the most coverage when it comes to PR, image, and reputation, the study found that President Bush received the most mentions - 53. Bush's landing an airplane on a carrier to declare the Iraq war over came in for criticism as a bad PR stunt, Hoffmann notes. By June, coverage was turning to how he was handling the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scandal in Iraq. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in a June 27 editorial: "No matter how much spin it applies, the White House cannot dodge the record." Martha Stewart was the second most-mentioned person - 52 stories - with coverage split between two reputation themes: whether she had done enough, in terms of image, during her trial and whether legal concerns made it impossible for her to do what needed to be done - apologize and try to rebuild her reputation. While federal government PR efforts often came in for criticism as spin or stunts, use of PR by state and local governments received generally more favorable coverage. CARMA found 47 stories that discussed use of taxpayer funds for PR purposes. Of those, 25 stories put PR use in a favorable light, while 22 put it in a negative light. "PR efforts funded by taxpayers were supported when a clear benefit was conveyed to the media," Hoffmann says. A July 11 Louisville Courier-Journal article, for example, spoke favorably of a Kentucky plan to spend $15 million a year to attract new businesses and residents to the state. A June 29 Washington Post story about a plan by the Washington Water and Sewer Authority to pay Edelman $100,000 for crisis communications guidance on the issue of lead contamination included a favorable comment by a DC city council member. "PR efforts funded by taxpayers were criticized when the benefits were less clear and the media focused on an appearance of secrecy when it came to public knowledge of the efforts," Hoffmann says. A Medicare VNR featuring a piece to camera by a non-journalist done by the federal government was criticized, for example, as "covert propaganda" by the Bush administration. In the business world, PR was seen as an effective way to enhance corporate reputation and brand awareness. The Wall Street Journal wrote on July 30 of how insurance company AFLAC successfully used a PR campaign to magnify the impact of its relatively small advertising budget. In analyzing coverage, CARMA assigned a rating to stories. An index number above 50 connotes a positive story, below 50 negative, and 50 neutral. The study found 279 stories that mentioned PR in the context of rebuilding image or changing opinions. Those stories received a favorable rating of 53, indicating that there was almost an equal amount of positive and negative coverage. The highest favorability rating - 59 - went to stories that discussed PR in the context of increasing awareness. The lowest rating, 46, went to stories about stunts. Stories that mentioned using PR for education purposes received a favorable 57 rating. Eaton's Bihary, who reviewed the study, noted that her impression is that media coverage of PR depends on the broader context of a story. "When PR is used in the context of a favorable activity, it's viewed positively. When it's used in a negative situation, it's perceived negatively," she says. Working before crisis strikes The message for corporate communicators such as herself in the survey, she says, is that PR needs to be working on issues of reputation and corporate image long before a crisis situation or business setback such as bad earnings emerges. "The role of PR in corporate reputation is not to build corporate reputation," Bihary says. "Our role is to build the things that become corporate reputation." She sees PR as the moral compass for corporate America, building a sense of integrity within a company so that it can develop a positive reputation. "If companies do something unethical, PR should speak up." CARMA's survey seems to echo that position since articles generally applaud PR for telling positive stories and denigrate it for trying to cover up negative situations. The message for PR when telling a story, says Hoffmann: "Make sure you've got the facts to back it up."

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