It's Time to Reclaim "PR"

Gallup Poll Results from November, 2012

Gallup Poll Results from November, 2012

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

"/disapprove" by striatic

“/disapprove” by striatic

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”

"Greg Rewis Speaking at An Event Apart Minneapolis 2010" by SuperPope

“Greg Rewis Speaking at An Event Apart Minneapolis 2010” by SuperPope

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.

Todd Van Hoosear

About Todd Van Hoosear

Todd’s love of technology started as a child, when his dad would bring home chips and switches from his work in the electronics industry that would feed his imagination for years. Combining a stint as an IT guy with his education in PR and communication, Todd has helped clients in the engineering, mobile, cloud, networking, consumer technology and consulting spaces bring new ideas – and new takes on old ideas – to the market.

Learn more about Todd

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  1. Hi Todd, very good post, and particularly interesting in light of a report just issued by the Republican National Committee in the wake of the pounding Republicans took in the last election. As reported by the New York Times, “[t]he prescription from the national party largely avoids policy, instead focusing on messaging. ‘The way we communicate our principles isn’t resonating widely enough,’ Mr. Priebus said. ‘Focus groups described our party as narrow-minded, out of touch and, quote, stuffy old men.’ Mr. Priebus announced that the national committee would invest $10 million to bring on new staff members to help appeal to young, female and minority voters. They will be charged with delivering an ‘aggressive marketing campaign’ among those voters about ‘what it means to be a Republican.'”

    Will the Republicans be able to spin themselves back into the hearts and minds of voters without changing what they actually stand for and do? We shall see, but I’m doubtful.

    • Tim, such a great example! I’m equally doubtful, UNLESS those staffers have some kind of voice with the party leadership…

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