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.
I’m a huge fan of nature and often times see things very differently by simply observing. Now, let me be clear before any of you really outdoorsy types start inviting me on a major hiking, camping or exploring adventure: I like being out in nature and enjoying the beauty…then going home to high-speed Internet, air conditioning, and running water. =) Anyway, I believe there is a tremendous amount that can be learned by watching how the world moves without us impacting it. Observe how all kinds of creatures fit into the world and how the ecosystem has a natural rhythm to it.
However, what I noticed last week had nothing to do with a natural setting. I sat at a drive through bank waiting for the teller to send me a receipt via that amazing wonder of the world known as an air tube and noticed a small bird flying above me. I watched him fly into the overhang above. His feet hopped deliberately from the broad girder to a thin piece of metal tubing running downward for several feet to reach a platform below. He remained there a moment, picked up some sort of twig, and returned in the same focused manner to the overhang above while chirping happily.
What was it about this that made it stand out and stick with me so clearly? And, how in the world does this relate to communications and PR?
This little bird has adapted to the environment around it which is by no means typical or natural for him. In the heart of downtown Minneapolis this bird has created a home surrounded by concrete and steel with a constant hum of traffic moving past it each day.
Public relations as an industry must find ways to successfully adapt to a changing world.
- PR practitioners must thing critically to understand the goals of the business. We cannot depend solely on media relations to validate our existence. The environment is changing and the barriers to traditional media are being dissolved. Anyone with a computer and a little creativity can find ways to get information to media outlets. Maintaining a list of contacts isn’t good enough.
- PR pros have an ever-increasing list of tools available to us that connect with key audiences. We should take the time to expand our own skill sets to understand how social media, geolocation applications, and customer created content on Yelp or blogs impacts our organizations/clients.
- For the good of the industry, PR must take an honest look at the traditional models of how we measure success. Does the typical client/agency model still work? I don’t know. What is the value proposition for organizations like PRSA and IABC? Access to thought-leaders is far different thanks to technology versus 10 years ago…how do we need to provide opportunities for continued learning?
I will never pretend to have all the answers but would sure enjoy hearing what others think on the issue of adaptability for our industry. Change isn’t always easy but a little birdie showed me that it is possible.
Let me get this out-of-the-way right at the beginning. I am a huge PRSA supporter. I’ve been a PRSSA and PRSA member for roughly 15 years now. This could be construed as negative but I want to make sure that everyone understands it is meant only as a valid question in the hopes of continuing to consistently improve the offerings provided to the organization’s membership.
When I began as a recent graduate, I recall attending monthly meetings featuring some of the best and brightest in the Twin Cities. I was honestly in awe of what many of these professionals had accomplished as I was starting my career. Over the next decade, I was able to build relationships and connections that helped me along as I learned how to stand on my own. PRSA played a valuable role in enhancing my career.
However, in today’s environment when so many senior communications professionals are only a Tweet or webinar away, I”m wondering if PRSA needs to alter its traditional approach to delivering value to its membership. Access that was stunning to me years ago is now commonplace, and expected. As professionals continue to shell out a few hundred dollars each year to be a member, what can the organization do that really delivers a significant benefit to those of you out there that support it? What methods of programming are you interested in? Should there be a greater emphasis on webinars or perhaps more focus on a regional set of programming versus strictly local? Or does the price point need to change to more frequent but targeted lower cost events?
As more and more professionals are struggling with justifying the cost of professional development to their employers (or paying it on their own during a tough economy) what’s the mix you’d like to see?