PR should highlight work, not charity, in response to criticism

When talking about how bad they are at promoting themselves, PR pros often claim the irritating cobblers' children defense.

When talking about how bad they are at promoting themselves, PR pros often claim the irritating cobblers' children defense. They claim, quite rightly, that they're often poor at their own proactive PR. But the events of last week - when CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen issued a clumsily contrived hit piece on the PR industry (see editorial) - showed just how quick the industry was to defend its honor.

The law of retorts presumes that the furor over an issue usually drums up more coverage of the initial event. One of our reporters remarked to me that he probably never would have heard about the commentary had the PRSA not responded so forcefully. This may be true; I can't imagine - Bob Schieffer's sunny disposition aside - that CBS Sunday Morning is a ratings powerhouse. But respond they did, anyway.

Cohen's commentary struck at the most sensitive part of the PR pro when he called the industry liars. "Show me a PR person who is 'accurate' and 'truthful,' and I'll show you a PR person who is unemployed," he chortled.

While many in the industry defend their honor by claiming they served clients and bosses for decades without mendacity, some fell to a common defense: the empathetic vote. PRSA CEO Jeff Julin talked about the work PR did post-9/11, and about programs addressing veterans.

Whenever the industry is despoiled, representatives too often talk about the nonprofit, philanthropic, and compassionate work that, honestly, makes up only a small percentage of what the industry handles. What PR pros should do instead is tell anyone (critics or proponents) that the entire industry is a business function, like any other profession: sales, law, or accounting. Accountants don't talk about how they run charitable 5Ks in their spare time to justify that they make six-figures helping companies achieve the most ideal financial reports. Lawyers don't claim charity work is penance for their critical role in helping companies navigate complex national and international laws. At least, the good ones, comfortable in their life decisions, don't.

The industry should take pride in the fact that it brings shareholders and executives value for articulating their groups' missions, values, and policies. Every organization has the right to express its message.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that the industry views its work with multinationals, defense contractors, and the like as a sort-of evil that needs to be rectified through more humanitarian work. Don't get me wrong, I think the industry should be very active in providing communications to worthwhile causes, and I applaud those shops that focus solely on those projects.

But if you're representing a group - that not everyone supports - in a manner that is fair and factual, and you speak out when you find something out-of-step with its charter, you needn't make excuses to anyone.

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