Is PR a Lost Cause?


I talked recently about PR stereotypes, and Judy Gombita of PR Conversations just sent a link to this post: Is PR Innately Immoral?

Since the topic seems to be on a lot of blogs lately, I’d like to give my $.02.

Is there an image problem?

Yes. Absolutely. PR people suck at PR for the industry itself.

Is our reputation damaged beyond repair?

I highly doubt it. If anything, I find small business, online businesses, and independent professionals to be extremely open to really understanding the various aspects of PR and what it can do for them. I don’t know if this is an overall trend, or just the ones I deal with because they like the open and bluntly honest approach I use – I don’t leave room for them to assume I’d do anything unethical on their behalf, and if they ask me to, I don’t – simple business policy.

I don’t work with many larger corporate clients, so I won’t speak on that front, although I imagine most still value PR or they wouldn’t be paying for the in-house teams and firms.

Our real image problem lies with the general public. Sure, that’s a bad thing, and we need to work on that, but it’s never going to make what we do less relevant to our clients. Worst case scenario is that a new name would be slapped on the practices, and we’ll all go on our merry way.

PR vs Marketing

Adele mentions in her post that she’s been seeing PR and marketing criticized a lot recently, with the terms being used interchangeably. This isn’t a surprise. It’s been happening for ages.

It’s also one of the first things I think the PR industry needs to address when it comes to improving its own image. Let’s face it… we have enough of our own bad apples to deal with. We don’t need the weight of unethical marketers (and there are a LOT in the newer Internet marketing game) on our shoulders too.

Industry Regulation?

I don’t think we’re at a point where we need industry regulation – and quite frankly, I wouldn’t trust any existing organization to handle it, as I don’t think there’s one that truly understands the broader concept of PR while being able to stay effectively on top of all of the new changes constantly brought on by technology.

So What Should We Do?

I think we need to focus not on regulation but on education. Not only do PR students and those in similar disciplines need to be taught ethical practices, but it’s our responsibility to also educate our clients.

If clients understand the value of good PR (and ethical PR), PRs won’t feel the pressure to stoop lower than they might like to satisfy a client. This is where I start with my clients. I make it clear up front that I have certain ethical standards that I won’t compromise, and I explain the broader effects unethical PR can have if they come under fire for it. The vast majority respect that, and actually appreciate someone explaining how what seems like a simple action (like sending a press release) can actually affect them down the road.

Sure, I have the benefit of working independently, in that I can refuse a client (which probably hasn’t happened more than a handful of times in the last few years – in most cases when I’m approached with something unethical, the client’s more than happy to reevaluate that plan with me). But in the interest of their own PR, I believe firms need to have their own set of standards, and that nothing in the industry is going to really change until we start better educating the people we work for. We need to make the clients not only want strictly ethical PR strategies, but demand them from their current PR people or future reps they deal with.

Perhaps I’m being naive or idealistic. But I look at it this way – if I can grow a set and stand up for ethical PR practices without industry-imposed regulations, there’s no good reason you couldn’t too. And frankly, I think it’s the big firms that should be leading the way and setting the standards with things like this – not the little guys. They’re the ones with more influence over what students are going to strive to become, and when we start affecting that group, eventually the in-house corporate teams will follow (or at least we can hope).


  • ipiks says:

    thanks for important a subject Jennifer.
    i lost 2 value from my pagerank 2 month ago. why I don’t know? Really.

  • B.J. Smith says:

    Lost cause? Cripes, I hope not, as someone who is trying to get established on my own. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career, it’s that you are nothing without honesty. If there’s another, it’s that you don’t promise what you can’t deliver. There are probably a few others things, too.

  • Judy Gombita says:

    Don’t you find a blog post (which seems to indulge in a fair bit of link love) called “Is PR Innately Immoral?” to be just a wee bit sweeping and deliberately provocative? Particularly coming from someone who is a marketer?

    Check out the various definitions/synonyms for “immoral” on, and judge if any of the many links/posts cited come even remotely close to being “immoral.”

    In typical social media fashion, I think a lot of these complaints are blown way out of proportion. And if said complaints were being sent to a regulatory, professional body (or association), likely they wouldn’t even meet the tribunal stage. Industry/trade PR/comms associations tend to have codes of ethics with absolutely no teeth, so one can hardly look to there…but the (often self-interested) wild west of the bloggers/blogosphere hardly provides a reasonable alternative.

    I agree that both educators and principals in big PR firms could and should help to take the lead. But first what is truly “unethical” and (particularly) “immoral” in PR (and social media) would need to be definitively established.

    Here’s a sampling:

    –adjective 1. violating moral principles; not conforming to the patterns of conduct usually accepted or established as consistent with principles of personal and social ethics.
    2. licentious or lascivious.

    im·mor·al·ly, adverb

    —Synonyms bad, wicked, dissolute, dissipated, profligate. Immoral, abandoned, depraved describe one who makes no attempt to curb self-indulgence. Immoral, referring to conduct, applies to one who acts contrary to or does not obey or conform to standards of morality; it may also mean licentious and perhaps dissipated. Abandoned, referring to condition, applies to one hopelessly, and usually passively, sunk in wickedness and unrestrained appetites. Depraved, referring to character, applies to one who voluntarily seeks evil and viciousness. Immoral, amoral, nonmoral, and unmoral are sometimes confused with one another. Immoral means not moral and connotes evil or licentious behavior. Amoral, nonmoral, and unmoral, virtually synonymous although the first is by far the most common form, mean utterly lacking in morals (either good or bad), neither moral nor immoral. However, since, in some contexts, there is a stigma implicit in a complete lack of morals, being amoral, nonmoral, or unmoral is sometimes considered just as reprehensible as being immoral.

  • BJ – I think the more social environment we work in now actually works to our benefit in PR – it gives the honest folks a voice they didn’t necessarily have before. And as long as we use it to our advantage and actually do speak up, share positive stories, and work to shoot down misconceptions, I think there’s a lot of hope for the profession. 🙂

    Judy – Yeah, I can see your point. I generally don’t take comments on PR from those who are solely marketers very seriously (just as I wouldn’t take a post on marketing from someone not in the field very seriously). I think I’m somewhat desensitized to the headlines though.

    I’m not sure if we’ll ever see standards set for what’s moral or immoral in PR, and frankly, I hope we don’t. I think it varies so much between industries, locations, etc. as it is, and there wouldn’t be any way to keep on top of each new technology coming out and how they can be used. I think it’s far more important that new PRs are taught basic common sense. If they’re all about hype, they should be in marketing. Each has a different emphasis, and different concern for the client (image / reputation versus making the sale at [almost] any cost). I think that we need to be developing more intuitive PRs, who can make their own judgment calls when presented with new tools and tactics, as opposed to giving them a set of rules to follow – if they tried, I highly doubt I’d listen.

  • Mary says:

    Very interesting topic here! I think this is really relevant as the internet seems to demand forthrightness and honesty – transparency. In the days of yore (and many agencies still practice as such) is was all about spin, but there are too many voices online and too many folks interested in cutting through the spin. I think that the spin-game was what gave PR a bad name and still does. With everything under the sun available on line, the spin will be seen through and it will come out in the wash. PR is a technique regarding communication and the ideas communicated have to valid and truthful or the lack of transparency will be seen. You are right that we have given ourselves a bad name – but I trust that that is changing, because the people who actually consume products and brands and events that we communicate about have a very strong voice – and ain’t that great!

  • letterhead says:

    Our reputation certainly is shot. Is PR a lost cause? Maybe not yet, but I think it’s heading in that direction. One: because business execs misunderstand and undervalue PR. Two because too many SENIOR pros in our industry tolerate, and even perpetrate, ethical misbehavior. Until there is some legal or monetary penalty all will continue on its current path. My guess is that when external conststraints sart coming into play… i.e., PR pros start getting sued and going to jail, just like their corporate bosses… then the profession will sit up and do something about it.

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