Five Ideas to Repair the Credibility of PR

Business, Communications, Leadership, Public Relations

Photo courtesy of DoktorSpinn under Creative Commons.There’s an issue that has always been a challenge for a lot of good PR people and it rears its ugly head a few times each year.  How can PR improve its own reputation?  I had a couple of reminders on the need for this work recently from very different sources.

First off I saw an interesting post from Keith Trivitt on PR Breakfast Club titled Ethical vs. Unethical: A Lot Rides on Only 2 Letters that highlighted yet another case where PR ethics were called into question around paid toy pitches that were framed as “expert” opinion.  Of course the problem is the expert was a front.  Transparency? Nah, why bother.  Focus on the audience? Crazy.

The second time the issue of our professional credibility came up was a chat I had with the stylist cutting my hair.  She asked what I did and I explained a bit about my varied communications work. She was surprised by the variety of efforts I mentioned.  She shared that she essentially thought of PR as promoting celebrities. Ugh.  She asked more about if PR could actually drive customers to a business like hers.  I explained that it sure better or you’re wasting your money and your PR person isn’t doing their job.

The professional of public relations has been relegated to the world of used car sales credibility for too long.  What can we do to improve the reputation of our field? Here are a few starters:

  • Highlight broader knowledge: The discipline of PR isn’t just media relations, it never has been.  Working with the media is an important skill but so is understanding product positioning, recognizing the importance and value of strong corporate reputation, and how online engagement has changed the dynamics of customer interaction.  Many PR professionals are handling all this and more everyday and their credibility is undermined by the type of PR people who believe the only credentials our profession requires are a good smile and the ability to raise a martini glass.
  • Industry advocacy: Our industry needs to continue to work on its own image.  At a national level, PRSA has been working to highlight the importance of ethical behavior and has a code of ethics for its members.  However, I think the industry needs to go further to push forward on what essentially equates to a campaign for itself to fight the stereotype of PR that continues to be pushed out by idiotic representations like The Spin Crowd.
  • Greater transparency:  Many of the problems surrounding the industry stem from questions around the motives of professionals and what is happening behind the scenes.  The toy review case mentioned earlier is a great example of what happens when your strategy is “let’s hope nobody notices or finds out.”  If that concept is ever raised in a meeting you know where its going to end up.  The need for transparency is well documented and is more important now than it ever has been as we live in an era where nearly everything can be tracked digitally.  If you aren’t comfortable with your name appearing next to your work on a billboard it’s a sign that you might want to rethink the idea.
  • Training: These issues can be very muddy to discern, especially when you’ve not faced them in the past, and greater training and education would benefit the industry in the long run.  Again, greater emphasis on real-world ethical case studies via PRSA programming could go a long way to providing guidance.  As could commitments from many of the larger agencies in the field.  A high percentage of younger pros get their first shot in PR from agencies and there are certainly some agencies out there that are part of the problem but many could also have a tremendous impact on industry reputation by including ethical decision-making as a key point of ongoing training.  By investing time on employees early on, they also protect their own reputation to avoid train wrecks that hurt the business like the FTC issues for Reverb and the industry.
  • Accountability: We are all responsible for this.  If you care about your own future in this industry and want to be able to hold your head high saying you work in public relations, you need to take steps to hold yourself as well as the companies and clients you serve to higher standards.  Take time to think about these issues and question those that would push you to compromise your values.  It’s ultimately your reputation and name on the line.

What else can we do to improve the expectations within our profession?  How can we take some time to repair our own image?   Add your ideas and share them with others so we can all feel good about the amazing work being done in our field and its future.

6 thoughts on “Five Ideas to Repair the Credibility of PR

  1. Dave – Enjoyed the post and find your points very interesting, particularly regarding accountability, an area all professionals and every organizations (PRSA, Council of PR Firms, Arthur W. Page Society, IPR, etc.) share a role in.

    Something you may not know is I recently joined the staff of PRSA as associate director of public relations, so your post – and those of others on similar topics – is something I find very interesting and informative, as the area of advocacy is a big focus of mine at PRSA. And, of course, it’s always great to get feedback on where innovative professionals such as yourself feel like the profession and its member organizations (such as PRSA) can do more to enhance the public’s perception of the value of PR.

    I appreciate your point about PRSA taking a leading role in developing real-world ethical case studies to better educate both internal audiences (PR professionals and other communicators), along with the business community of the ethical practices that public relations professionals regularly engage in and how those ethical practices translate to developing successful and engaging brand-building efforts on behalf of clients and their organizations.

    It’s actually something at PRSA we’re fervently engaged in, particularly through “The Business Case for Public Relations” (, which aims to foster more accurate and better-informed perceptions of the value and role of public relations in the diverse organizations it serves.

    Also, as you note, PRSA has been engaged in a month-long initiative highlighting ethics within the profession, along with best practices, areas of concern and other pertinent ethical issues.

    It’s really good to see professionals, such as yourself and others, taking such a strong stance regarding enhancing the reputation and credibility of PR.

  2. Thanks Keith for your initial post on the issue and for your comment here. I believe it is such an important topic both because of the public perception of the industry as well as internally. Credibility for PR pros can be a significant barrier for many to achieve the highest level of success possible in their careers. Poor perceptions of PR counsel also tint the view of senior leaders at the C-level.

    I appreciate you sharing a number of efforts that PRSA is working on as well. As with any sustainable solution, it seems to me that we’ll have to have both individual support along with some of the larger voices of leadership for the industry. I hope to see PRSA continue its efforts and hopefully there will be others that join in to encourage higher standards for all of us.

  3. Dave, great topic, as usual. As you stated above transparency is the key. I also believe we can’t be afraid of what we don’t know. Especially when dealing with a crisis, we may not have all the facts, but it’s important that the public understand that we are going to give the facts we can when we can and be honest about what’s happening. I learned a long time ago that not knowing something is fine, as long as you figure out what the answer is. Also, keeping in mind that your audience wants a plan of attack is very important. If you don’t know why something happened or how to stop it, at least have a multi-point plan to let the audience know how you plan to fix it. That goes a long way to building trust in our industry.

  4. It seems like this is a universal problem. In South Africa we have unqualified individuals operating as “pee aars” and doing untold damage to the profession. PRISA doesn’t appear to be that visible and perhaps they do need their own PR plan.

  5. Kareem- Thanks for your thoughts. The more that PR remains out in front and clarifies what we will or won’t accept in terms of professional behavior the better off we’ll be.

    Angelo- Interesting (and unfortunate) that this isn’t just a U.S. issue as well. I’d be interested to hear more about how the public perception of PR in South Africa is similar or different than what we face here.

  6. Good post. Seems to me that the PR industry has always suffered from poor PR if only because, like the cobbler’s children, we never have time to conduct campaigns on our own behalf.

    In addition to enhancing PR’s credibility, we need to make the case for PR in the social media age. I wrote a post about that on my blog, PR Back Talk,

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