Posted by Amanda Chapel
Is the PR Industry's reputation beyond repair? Okay, how about this: Could the reputation of the PR industry get any worse? I can't imagine it. Is it beyond repair? Sure looks that way.
But we’re makin’ money!!
No, I am not talking about the money. There’s also a lot of money to be made in porn and waste management. That’s not it. In spite of the fact that PR in America has been growing strongly and reached some $3.7 billion last year and is forecast to grow almost 9% a year, something’s not right.
On April 8, 1966, Time Magazine ran a cover story “Is God Dead?” It was about a movement in theology then based in part on a book by Gabriel Vahanian “The Death of God” (1961). The main advocates of the movement included the Christian theologians Vahanian, as well as Paul van Buren, William Hamilton and Thomas J. J. Altizer, and the Jewish rabbi Richard Rubenstein. The basic belief was that “modern secular culture had lost all sense of the sacred, lacking any sacramental meaning, no transcendental purpose or sense of providence.”
No, it’s not about the money.
Before I am accused of being “Debbie Downer,” how about our friend "Jaded Jack"? Only last week curmudgeon, sweetheart and the single-most-important chronicler of the PR Industry ever, Jack O'Dwyer, wrote an Op-Ed nearly pleading with the Industry's association PRSA to stand up and do something about the PR reputation problem. Jack said, "With no PR organization presenting a positive view of PR, PR's bad press has continued unabated." Jack sums up the problem and paints a pretty grim picture:
And then to top it off, there was the release of Sharon Barclay's research study last week, "The Prevalence of Women in PR." Of the 10 key reasons Barclay cites, the #1 reason is that women philologically have 10 times the white matter as men... which makes them superior at lying.
Hmmmmm. Ironic. Reputation managers valued for their ability to lie. I would imagine an accountant would have a lot of cachet after having done time for embezzlement. Or how about surgeons with high mortality rates? Or the arsonist as fireman? The mind swims. Funny. But not as funny as the PR Industry's response.
Richard Edelman, CEO of one of the world’s largest PR firms, addresses the Der Spiegel article in his blog. Forget the body of his post with all the dodging, puffing and pointing fingers. The “tell” is in the title, i.e. “Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Again and Again.”
Hit me again and again?! How loaded is that? Putting aside any potential that Richard is calling out for some German dominatrix to spank his quivering alabaster bottom… what that says is that he’s totally desensitized. He’s numb and apparently not alone. The very mechanism that a healthy marketplace relies on to self correct, is out of whack. WMD’s, Katrina, the daily horror in Baghdad, etc., etc, etc., we’re info overloaded and take awful all in stride. As my buddy Carmine Giovinazzo is like to say investigating this week’s murder on CSI-NY, “Wadyagonnado.”
So, how bad of a spanking are we getting? According to Custom Research Worldwide which produces the GfK Trust Index -- a survey of some 20 thousand respondents in 19 countries as to the levels of trust people have in professional groups like lawyers, journalists, the clergy, managers, doctors, the military, and the police -- politicians (PR’s more flamboyant colleagues) are at the bottom of the barrel. So what.
So what?! Excuse me but after a while, being at the bottom labels you and keeps you at the bottom.
Well, apparently that’s already happened. PR’s become cultural stereotype. It’s the perfect straw man. Want to win a public debate? Want to neutralize an opponent's agenda? Accuse them of PR. Here, this caught my eye a few weeks ago.
So what did the program’s opponents do? Perfect political-communications strategy… they accused the school board of PR. Jeanne Allen, President Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., wrote in an Op-Ed: “Public relations won't buy better Detroit schools.”
Fact is, the majority of the money is earmarked for media buys (advertising). Allen knows that. But to accuse DPS of PR is absolutely the same as accusing them of frivolous waste.
I am reminded of a recent article in the Herald Tribune on the unspoken rules of sporting insults. Even trash talk has its accepted limits. But to accuse someone of PR... well... that’s got to be over the top. It’s not quite “hate speech,” but it is way past name calling.
So, again, is it beyond repair? As I said, sure looks that way. As O’Dwyer so often points out, if PR and especially PRSA cannot clean up their own house, how can they be expected to change the Industry’s perception globally? Not likely.
How’d that happen? How’d we get in this mess? It’s a long story. Suffice to say we are living the prediction made some 15 years ago by Larissa Grunig, Elizabeth Lance Toth, Linda Childers Hon in their seminal book, “Women in Public Relations: How Gender Influences Practice.” We are seeing the business of PR being relegated to the level of typing pool. But this pool is not populated by the straight-backed well-groomed girls of the Institut Alpin Videmanette in Rougemont. In the eye of the public it’s comprised mainly of inflated egos, hucksters, liars and out-and-out swindlers who spend their days role-playing business and trying to invent new methods for surreptitious selling.
“So? So what? Billing has never been better. Go ahead... hit me with your best shot,” you say. “I will likely forget it on my way to the bank.”
But for some of us, we are very uncomfortable with what the business has become. We remember when dignity, ethics and integrity were first and foremost. Good PR is grounded in truth; and a good PR pro helps you present your best case grounded in truth. PR isn't how to lie better; it's how to tell the truth better.
The two seem almost irreconcilable. In a word, the PR business sure seems “hopeless”.
As I was writing this, Jack reminded me “We have to give these people hope... or they'll complain.” He’s right.
The challenge then is how to gracefully deal with hopelessness. Here, by way of a little story: The mother of one of my closest friends in college was a congresswomen. Amazingly talented and totally inept when it came to anything domestic. Not domestic as in the U.S. but rather, domestic as in her home. It was a TOTAL disaster. Affluence notwithstanding, there was just piles of stuff everywhere. Where something landed, it stayed. Consequently, she had a theory: the livability of a home is 5 years, 7 if larger that 4,000 sq. ft.
Bottom line: I think we just need to measure the square footage of PR and work the equation. I am thinking that it just may be time to move. The House of PR is dead.
News and Commentary - Is PR Dead
PR Blog Strumpette analysis of Time article, "Is PR Dead?"
Tracked: Aug 28, 18:26
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Amanda, you're right on the money. Here's the ammo DPS needs to fight back:
A few years ago in my journalism days, I was on the education beat in Birmingham. Much like Detroit, B'ham is imploding with everyone getting out of the city to the 'burbs. State school funding in Alabama was then based on the average daily attendance in the first 40 days of the school year.
When Birmingham City Schools started the "Just Show Up" campaign, it was savaged and ridiculed in the media and in the community. Many rightly pointed out that there was something very wrong with the idea that you had to tell parents to send their kids to class. (Here, the tradition for many families was to wait until after Labor Day to resume classes, actual calendar be damned.)
Anyway -- being an enterprising journalist, I grabbed the last few years of enrollment stats, and calculated the slide. At the halfway mark of the 40-day period, I called the attendance supervisor to get the updated figures.
By my calculations, the Birmingham City School system was on pace to save $6,000,000 in allocations. The facts later bore me out, and I had a neat little exclusive.
Scale that up to a Detroit-level budget, then let the op-ed pantywaists have their little cry. PR can be money in the bank if you know how to measure it. Journalists are, as a rule, horrible at math, so they decry the PR allocation they can see and ignore the effects they can't figure.
I found it noteworthy that the big PR agencies owned by public ad/PR/marketing conglomerates (all of the largest ones except for Edelman and RuderFinn) all ducked behind supposed Reg FD protection to say they would no longer give out revenue numbers. This, of course, was right after 9/11 and such revenues were tanking.
I don't know how these agencies can talk about "transparency" without pissing in their pants from sheer guilt.
I think the phrase is, "they cry all the way to the bank."
PR isn't dead. But, it is on life support.
The vultures are circling. Everyday there is a scandal in the PR world. Edelman/Walmart & the right wing bloggers, DCI's Gore videos, etc. The Harris poll survey of consumers shows what three decades of marketing communications from Edelman, H&K, Burson, et al have produced -- a public that hates PR and ignores it.
Just like in the advertising industry, the great ideas in PR that will save our industry are coming from the smaller, more nible agencies. Clients recognize this and are hiring smaller firms in droves. My clients, largely Internet startups, hate the big PR firms and don't trust them. The new generation of business leaders aren't dumb like the previous ones. As John Edwards would say -- Hope is on the Way.
God I want to believe that. From the bottom of my heart!
But I am reminded of the Woody Allen quote, "It's nothing that a fist full of Prozac and a baseball bat couldn't cure."
Sorry, but the degree of focused political energy that would be necessary to whack some sense into PR sadly may never come.
Hey, Amanda - I hope the House of PR isn't dying yet, I just got here...
Totally agree with what you're saying but, I must admit, it's the delicious contraditions and ironies in this business that make it interesting for me. "Interesting" sometimes translates into "morally challenging'', but there you go.
I think one of the reasons PR-types are able to get away with all types of badness (over-billing, dodgy media relations, all that stuff) is that Joe Public, and even CEO Joe Public, doesn't really exactly know what PR is. Hence, one could send an invoice for just about any old kind of nonsense and call it "PR Services Rendered." So maybe, as the business community (and the public) gets more sophisticated in terms of PR, lots of phony and shady behaviour will fall by the wayside.
On the flip side - and this is yet another juicy irony - the more people know about what PR is, the less powerful it becomes.