Upset by the reputation of PR? Get over it

(Originally published Sept. 14, 2011)

I’ve spent most of my career in public relations, and I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I’ve had with fellow practitioners who bemoan the lack of respect for our chosen field. Over the years, I’ve heard all the pejorative characterizations – glad hander or party planner, on the one hand, and spin doctor, tale spinner or word smith on the other.

The Public Relations Society of America (which has accredited me) decided within the past year to go on the offensive with its Business Case for Public Relations campaign. The society’s website explains:

Public relations is more vital than ever before, given the explosion of consumer engagement through new and social media, the collapse of reputation and trust in major institutions and the evolving needs and concerns of corporate CEOs. At the same time, though, the industry continues to suffer criticism at the hands of individuals who do not understand the practice and application of public relations.

Like my colleagues, I’m not particularly happy with some of the characterizations of what we do for a living. Anyone who believes that we deal with the “soft side” of business has never confronted an angry band of residents upset about an environmental incident. Glad-handing won’t quiet them; communications strategies that let them voice their concerns and respond respectfully with words and responsible actions can help.

People who believe that we practice coverups and sleight of hand to bury bad news can find examples to support their contention. My experience, though, is that professionals who follow that course of action don’t last long. The truth emerges, liars are found out, and once a lying public relations person is found to have misled the media and other important groups, that person’s career is severely set back and usually over.

I support fellow practitioners who try to burnish the reputation of public relations, but in some ways, I see our reputation issues as a hazard of the profession. We often work on controversial, contentious issues. We work for people and organizations with a point of view and a position to promote and defend. Some people will agree with our clients and employers, and some won’t. Those who don’t can become emotional and riled, and it’s only natural that they’ll start to see opponents and their consultants – including their PR consultants – negatively.

No profession is universally loved, and public relations practitioners shouldn’t expect to be either. We often try to help clients and employers improve their reputations. That’s doable, as is gaining a greater understanding and appreciation for the practice of public relations. Realistically, though, we tell clients they’ll never win over all their critics, and the same is true for us.

A large part of the concern among PR professionals, I’m sure, is that employers and clients won’t understand the role we play or the value we bring. My experience, though, is that during the 30 years I’ve done this for a living, as society has become more contentious and communications channels have multiplied, companies and organizations are seeing the value of having skilled communicators on their team.

PR professionals will continue to be in the thick of controversial issues, and that means we’ll be controversial ourselves. The essential role we play in controversies means that many companies and organizations respect what we do, or at least know they need us. The smartest companies figure out that they need good, ongoing relationships with key publics, and they rely on us to help make that happen over the long term. That’s good enough for me. How about you?

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