Kate Nicholas: In-house PROs brush their doubts aside

How deeply do you believe in your organisation? What would you do if forced by the media into a debate about the organisation’s very existence?

If you were the PR representative for a religious institution, say the Church of England, you may be regularly involved in quite robust exchanges with media over criticisms, but could you effectively
debate the existence of God?

Take a tobacco company: you can launch all the CSR programmes in the world, but the media won't let you forget that your products tend to kill the people who use them.

Last week, Editorial Intelligence and PRWeek hosted a debate on the Royal Family. As editor Danny Rogers pointed out in last week's leader ('Royals must redefine public engagement,' 5 May), it would have been good to have seen the PR representatives of the Queen and Prince Charles involved in a broader debate about the role of the monarchy, rather than focusing on its cost-effectiveness.

During this debate I was struck by the peculiarity of the role of the in-house PR practitioner.

Effective practitioners have to be supremely objective – able to view their company or organisation from the perspectives of its critics.

Meanwhile, the sheer demands of a top-level in-house job require an almost evangelical faith in the validity of one's organisation.

Is it possible, or advisable, to spend every (increasingly long and stressful) working day defending or promoting an organisation, in the public domain, about which one has severe doubts?

Many do of course, through a combination of weakness and necessity. I was recently researching an essay for a new book, Where the Truth Lies: Trust and Morality in PR and Journalism, edited by the ubiquitous Julia Hobsbawm and which hits bookshelves this week. In it I unearthed a 2000 survey from PRWeek's US sister title – 44 per cent of a 1,700-strong sample said they were uncomfortable with the ethics of the tasks they were asked to perform on behalf of their organisation.

I would like to think that the UK PR industry is somehow purer than its US counterpart, and that it has developed rather more backbone in the past five and a half years, but I doubt it.

It would have been more interesting perhaps if the US poll had asked the practitioners involved if they were actually comfortable with the basic ethics and validity of the company they worked for. I suspect the results would be sobering.

kate.nicholas@haynet.com

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