PR didn’t finish dead last in a Gallup poll released this week about industries with the best and worst reputations, but it came perilously close, with the communications business only topping pharmaceuticals, the federal government and healthcare.
The uninspiring performance highlights a regular question: why can’t a profession that fixes the reputations of others repair its own?
The survey, which combined PR and advertising into one group, reinforces the theory that the general public simply doesn’t understand what PR pros do, they say. Stereotypes don’t help either, with the public imagining celebrity fixers, nor does the industry’s "inferiority complex," says Kim Sample, president of the PR Council.
"It should be our moment in the sun, but we don’t grab it," she says. "We believe PR can solve the world’s biggest problems, and we need to talk about that more. The council has to take some responsibility and work to set the record straight on the good the industry does."
Gail Heimann, recently appointed CEO of Weber Shandwick, notes that "flackery" is the dominant stereotype of the industry.
"They’re not walking down the halls of Weber Shandwick or any of our competitors," Heimann said on The PR Week podcast. "They look at people they see on the news. They get an image of 100 years ago of what would be called flackery. That’s the image they get of what we do."
In the mind of the public, PR is about stunts and spin, but not of the profession’s work mobilizing people behind social causes or its activity on social media or delivering serious news, say experts. The industry is also reluctant to toast its own success, with Red Havas CEO James Wright noting that when good work is done, it’s rarely acknowledged as "PR."
"We need to celebrate our wins as an industry instead of mocking each other," he says, adding that he thinks PR firms are "frightened their clients will leave" if they highlight others’ work. "We need to be more secure as an industry."
Wright argues that the public perception of PR will improve as more brands start acting as their own media organizations, citing the statistic that there are six PR pros for each journalist.
"We’re becoming the de facto journalists of the future," he says. He posits that PR pros could actually help financially troubled newsrooms by helping to produce stories they no longer have the manpower to cover.
By the numbers
Despite a bleak reputation, Sample says the industry’s workforce reports high rates of satisfaction, according to the PR Council’s research. More than eight in 10 (85%) say they’re optimistic about the industry’s outlook, and 80% respond that they would recommend a job in PR. Nearly all (95%) say they’re engaged in their jobs, an eye-opening figure when compared to 32% of all Americans, Sample adds.
There are also silver linings in the Gallup report: 33% of the public report a positive perception of advertising and PR, compared to 34% who had a negative view. That net negative of one is far better than the figures for the pharmaceutical industry (-31), the federal government (-27) and healthcare (-10).
Another 32% say they have neutral feelings about PR and advertising, which presents "a real opportunity to drive change," says Ben Boyd, global chief strategy and operating officer at BCW Group, via email.
This is close to the advertising and PR average since the poll started in 2001, according to Gallup spokesperson Justin McCarthy. Taking the average of all the Gallup polls, American sentiment about PR and advertising over two decades is a net zero negative-positive.
Sentiment toward advertising and PR reached a low in 2008 amid the financial crisis, which dragged down the reputations of industries aside from finance and real estate, McCarthy says. The reputation of advertising and PR was underwater until 2013, and it had been positive until this year.
The number of Americans who are neutral about advertising and PR has been stable in the range of 27% to 34%, McCarthy notes. Its reputation peaked in 2003 as part of a broader trend in which views of all industries rose after 9/11.
"I don’t think there is a problem, which might be surprising," says Francis Ingham, director general of the U.K.-based industry trade body PRCA. "I don’t think we should ever want to be loved. All we need to be is respected, because we’re never going to be loved."
He notes that PR provides a "positive" service for businesses, charities and organizations and compares the level of popularity to that of lawyers and financial directors -- no one likes them either -- but they wield influence and executives listen to their counsel.
"So long as people acknowledge we’re professionals, ethical, effective and influential, then it doesn’t bother me that people don’t like us," he says. "From an international perspective, there are plenty of countries, including the U.K., where we would kill for those numbers...Those are really good numbers."
Does it even matter?
Newly appointed North 6th Agency CMO Jordan Cohen says PR’s perception problem with the public shouldn’t be its priority. The big question is whether clients think it’s moving the needle.
"Our industry needs to focus on closely aligning everything we do with aligning with our clients and driving specific business outcomes for them and proving through data and analytics that we had a hand, if not the most important hand in driving those outcomes," Cohen says, via email. "Anything and everything else is fluff."
Boyd disagrees, saying the environment in which PR pros are operating, including fake news and alternative facts, makes the results as meaningful as ever.
"The best, and only, way for us to change perceptions is to help our clients build strong, honest relationships with their audiences that are rooted in earned engagement and grounded in relevancy and truth," Boyd says, via email.