Viewpoint: Does public relations have a PR problem?


The inaugural PR National Awareness Day reportedly hopes to improve the reputation of an industry that earns its corn trying to improve reputations. Long-serving public relations expert Benjamin Webb says it's not an easy task.

There is an irony that an industry all about the construction and manipulation of image might itself suffer from an image problem. But it does.

My heart always sinks when I meet new people and the inevitable urban question pops out: "So what do you do for a living?"

I tend to end my explanation, shortly before the eyes of the listener start to glaze, with the same line: "I work in PR, but it is not the PR that you think that you know."

So what's the problem with PR?

Why does this, the worst-paid of the marketing disciplines, engender such disdain, whereas other sectors are tolerated, even considered cool?

Why has the negative phrase "It's just a PR stunt" entered common parlance to suggest something ephemeral and without substance, merit, or legitimacy?

Our brethren in advertising got Mad Men, a cultural phenomenon which, in spite of the moral ambiguity of its protagonist, hardly turns people against the profession.

By contrast, PR has made it on to the screen with spivvy chancer Tony Curtis being clapped in irons in The Sweet Smell of Success, a morally bankrupt Colin Farrell going into meltdown in the little-remembered 2002 movie Phone Booth, the absurdity of Absolutely Fabulous's Edina, and the sociopathic rages of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It.

In the spirit of good satire, these are entertaining, unreal exaggerations. Yet the British contributions to this list were inspired by real-life PR practitioners - Edina by Lynne Franks, and Malcolm Tucker with an easily detectable whiff of Alastair Campbell.

The fictional characters reflected the fact that their sources had stepped over the line to become part of public consciousness.

To understand the impact of this shift, it is useful to go back to the origins of modern PR. Throughout history, the ruling classes have tinkered with their reputations, manipulating them to suit their own agendas.

Chroniclers, playwrights, ballad-writers and artists selectively reinterpreted events to suit the egos of their patrons long before notions of image and "personal profile" came into existence.

But it was the dawn of the consumer age and the birth of mass media which put decision-making in the hands of the majority.

image captionRichard Branson: king of the PR stunt

The same rules which had long underpinned political propaganda started being applied to sell cars, TVs and other trappings of capitalism.

Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, often cited as the founding father of public relations, wrote in his 1928 book, Propaganda, that "the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country",

Bernays did not consider this socially corrosive.

He had a point. Marketing disciplines might influence the behaviour of individuals, but they are created by a societal need.

Bernays earned an award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his work in changing public opinion through a campaign showcasing the contributions of African-Americans to society.

Here, the unseen manipulation of the masses was clearly positive, and few would resent this. just as they would not have a problem with a charity PR getting attention for a cause today.

PR grew and grew.

image captionAlistair Campbell - Labour's former head of communications

According to Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, by 2008, the UK had more people in PR (47,800) than journalists (45,000).

Between 1979 and 1988, expenditure on government PR departments rose a staggering 500% to £150m.

By the time that John Major left office in 1997, there were 1,163 Whitehall press officers. According to Davies, under Tony Blair, a staggering 20,000 government press releases were sent out each year and millions spent on external agencies.

When the political PR person started to become the story, an entire discipline - including wholly unrelated sectors - came to be outed in the eyes of the general public, and cynicism and resentment of an industry set in.

If anything, PR now needs to go back into the shadows, which probably sounds more sinister than intended.

The industry's image problem will fix itself because the writing is on the wall for the traditional consumer-focused public relations model.

The deluge of badly-written press releases, silly events and photo stunts, "news stories" without news value, and meaningless "campaigns" have come to irk journalists and bore an increasingly cynical general public.

If anything, it will be the changing nature of the media that will fundamentally alter the PR industry, weeding-out the hapless and the disingenuous.

For years, advertising and marketing agencies have been evaluated on the clear impact of tangible work.

But many PR people have got away with hoodwinking clients with peculiar algorithms that link the size of an editorial article on the page with the cost that it would have taken to secure an advert of the same dimensions.

In the past half decade, the exponential growth of social media and blogging has created new and more substantive methods for evaluating success.

While some old school PR cliches can work online - the clever photo, or an interesting interview - others, such as the tedious opinion poll-based news-in-briefs which clutter the pages of Monday newspapers, simply go nowhere.

In the digital age, creative, credible interactive content is king - demanded by a cynical general public.

One day, I hope to overhear someone say, without a sneer, "That was a really good piece of PR" in a manner similar to how beautiful or striking adverts are praised.

Benjamin Webb is managing director of Deliberate PR

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