Machiavellian spin doctors and 'ditzy blondes': wouldn't it be nice to end PR stereotypes?

If you work in PR - and I did for a few years at the start of my career - you are acutely aware of the stereotypes that persist.

Danny Rogers: It would be nice to change the wider media narrative about PR
Danny Rogers: It would be nice to change the wider media narrative about PR

Indeed if you checked the news this Monday morning you would have seen them writ large, across the newspaper front pages, all over social media.

Because the PR stereotypes, since the 1990s at least, are two-fold and consistent: the shady, Machiavellian (male) spin doctor, who dabbles with the dark arts of ‘persuasion’; and the attractive, ditzy (usually blonde) ‘PR girl’ who likes, indeed organises or hosts, a great party.

These caricatures have of course been brought further to life through TV comedies The Thick of It and Absolutely Fabulous. And if we’re honest, we have met a few PRs who fit those bills.

So imagine our despair when we saw Monday’s headlines.

‘Qatar World Cup ‘dirty tricks’ guru worked for the Assads’ (The Times on Monday) – a story about Michael Holtzman, president of PR consultancy BLJ Worldwide in New York, who allegedly had employed some seriously dark arts to ensure the 2022 World Cup ended up in Qatar. Not that Fifa needed much help in the dark arts during that period.

And then – in the tabloids – ‘Love rat Ben Foden had fling with PR girl behind wife Una Healy’s back’ (The Sun on Monday) – referring to Becky Milne, a 26-year-old blonde PR professional, apparently, whose ‘dad also runs a PR agency’. The pictures of our Becky are classic pouty, scantily-clad Insta nightmares.

Anyone reading this stuff could be forgiven for asking whether the PR industry has moved on at all during the past 25 years.

Now, I don’t happen to know either of these PRs. Ms Milne may be a fine professional, who just happens to be friends with some hedonistic rugger bugger types. Holtzman most definitely has a senior role at a well-established agency. Indeed, he was awarded PR professional of the year back in 2002, by our sister title PRWeek US. And one senses this Qatar World Cup bid story will run for many months yet.

Regardless of whether these two are indeed fine, upstanding professionals it really would be nice – helpful, even - to change the wider media narrative about the PR industry; a sector now worth many billions to the UK economy and employing 80,000 mostly highly-talented individuals; a sector that continues to grow in both spend and importance.

Of course the media are somewhat guilty of persisting with these caricatures. Journalists have always been mistrustful of a profession once famously described as ‘The Hidden Persuaders’, especially when they see the occasional former colleague who ‘goes to the dark side’ into PR and doubles their salary.

It is, however, incumbent on PR bosses to clean up their act, improve the ethics of this business – in some cases, just stop being an idiot - so the industry doesn’t continue to serve up fodder for such scandalous front pages.

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