U.S. PR agencies, as well as our industry overall, are on an upswing as the economy continues to improve. Yet PR’s own reputation may still need some work.
A survey of 2000 citizens for UK PR Week found that seven in ten people call public relations “more spin than substance,” and over two-thirds say PRs can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Because PR people are “paid to influence,” a mere 12 percent find us trustworthy, a distressingly low margin. The survey’s headlines sound very much like similar research done in the U.S. and elsewhere. The only good news is that we rank somewhat higher than politicians, who are mistrusted by 84 percent of those surveyed.
When it comes to reputation, beating politicians isn’t exactly an accomplishment. Yet, average citizens aren’t the people who hire PR agencies, and there are plenty of other professions (see: lawyers) who suffer similar perception issues. So, should the industry care about how we’re perceived by the public, and if so, what should we do about it?
My answer is yes, we should care. As Laurence Evans of Reputation Leaders points out, having a negative reputation is probably bad for business. But beyond that, it’s not healthy for the industry’s future. Young people looking to enter marketing, communications, and general business professions are our talent pipeline. Ambitious young graduates who see PR practitioners as slippery, shallow, or downright dishonest may remove it from their career consideration set.
We’re only as good as our talent, so a sketchy image could harm the entire profession. As those paid to influence, we should be able to do a better job of influencing public perception of our own industry.
So what can be done? PR for PR has been batted around for decades, with prescriptions ranging from a rebranding of the profession to its very redefinition. A few ideas I think have real merit. I’m sure none of the below are new, but they’re worthy of consideration.
Getting PR in more business school curricula. PRSA and other industry groups have done some good work at the university level in getting communications, PR and reputation onto the business track along with marketing and advertising. The discipline of public relations is increasingly part of overall business communications, and it should be part and parcel of what is taught at the college level to MBAs and other business students. In my view that could help kill the Samantha Jones stereotype that has positioned PR as a party girl occupation.
A pro bono public service campaign undertaken by leading PR agencies. The model for this is the groundbreaking work by advertising trade group 4A’s in harnessing top industry talent to create innovative anti-drug-abuse campaigns as The Partnership For Drug-Free America. Though the campaign has been criticized by some, the model has worked. I vote for the PR business to take on global climate change in a massive journalist and citizen education campaign.
The industry should hire a PR firm. No, really. The position as AOR (agency of record) for the profession could be seen as a prestigious assignment, rotating or up for review every two years among qualified agencies, under the direction of the PR Council or Institute for PR. As with any trade association or professional services program, it would have predetermined objectives for perception change and a real, industry-funded budget. Who better to take this on than those who have experienced it?
Clearly, it’s not a simple problem and there are no easy answers. But maybe it’s time we treated our own industry like a client.