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.
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).