The term “PR” is used too often as a catchall for problems that run much deeper. Words alone are about as good at fixing companies’ problems as they are at fixing the toilets on stranded cruise ships.
If PR and advertising get thrown together in most people’s minds, then lawyers officially have a better reputation than PR people. In fact, the only professions with a worst reputation than advertisers in a November Gallup poll are politicians and car salespeople.
The very profession dedicated almost exclusively to helping companies improve their reputations in fact suffers from one of the worst reputations of any profession.
What, then, gives PR professionals the right to dictate how companies might improve their reputations while their own sits in the crapper? If a political candidate or public office holder had an 11% approval rate (click on the chart on the right to see the full results, which include a couple other columns and more explanation), the press secretary’s head might be on the chopping block, but there would be plenty of heads ahead of his or hers before that happens.
The PR (and advertising) profession ought to get its own house in order if it hopes to move up on this list. Here are a few things that must be understood.
It’s Not a “PR” Problem, It’s a Management Problem
Lawyers (who, for the record, rank eight percentage points ahead of advertising professionals in Gallup’s survey, if you’re counting) will be the first to remind us that brand names must be defended or they risk falling into generic status–look at what happened to Kleenex, Hoover, Band-Aid, and even words like escalator, aspirin and linoleum. The words and phrases get tossed around a little too carelessly, and PR is no exception. One of the signs of generic status is the “verbification” of the word. In the U.K., you hoover your living room floor. Where does PR sit? Well, the usage is still colloquial, but around the world, you can, for example, “PR” your way out of a crisis. PR, dear readers, is certainly a process, but it’s not a verb.
Let’s look at a couple of current news items where the “PR” term is applied a little too loosely. Does Carnival Cruise Lines have a PR problem, or does it have a business (and more specifically, an operations) problem? Does JP Morgan have a PR problem, or a reputation problem that stems from poor management decisions? Neither of these management problems can be fixed by “PR.”
Take the quotes out of “PR”
The PR profession is to blame for the quotes around “PR.” It has not adequately defended the true role and value of the public relations role, which is not to distribute press releases and call up media to pitch the good news and spin the bad. The true role of public relations is to advise companies on the impact that their business is having on the public, to offer suggestions on how future business developments may change perceptions, and to find not spin, but stories, that best communicate the intentions of the management team.
Fellow PR practitioners, we all must band together if we’re to fight the “genericization” of our profession. The next time someone calls a company or industry crisis a “PR problem,” correct them. Remind them of the strategic role that PR can and should play. I am not a corporate mouthpiece, nor am I a spin doctor. I cannot fix problems by emails, phone calls, tweets and blog posts. I can only fix problems if you bring me in at the earliest stages and give me, or the senior PR practitioner I offer my services to, a seat at the table and a voice that is heeded by the management team.
Getting the seat at that table is the subject of another blog post, but I think Alan Towers offers one approach to securing that spot — and reinforces PR’s critical role in reputation management.