Monday, January 19, 2009

The Public (Mis) Perception of PR

A student asked me before class earlier today about a situation in which a friend called for a "communication specialist" position and said he was a PR major. He was told "that's just spin." When he gave a reasoned rebuttal and definition of PR, he was told, "that's just your spin on it."

My student, understandably, was frustrated by this. Unfortunately, the equation of PR to spin is not new, and won't go away soon. Ironically, there are others outside our profession who think PR is spin and think that's a good thing (I've had arguments with more than a few of them).

Here's a quick list of reasons why this public misperception of PR persists:
  • PR people practicing unethically
  • PR people who did not get a thorough education in what PR really is
  • people in other professions--marketing, politics, law, etc--encroaching on our profession and spinning, which is then called "public relations"
  • cultivation of the perception that PR is spin in the news and entertainment media.

    So, what to do about this?

  • Refer to the 6th provision in the PR Code of Ethics: Enhance the Profession. Remember that everything YOU do in public relations affects the reputation of the profession as a whole.
  • Explain what you do and why you do it the way you do to your clients, colleagues, co-workers, dinner guests, family...even cab drivers.
  • Blog about PR, the way it really is
  • Be persnickety--correct people every time they utter throwaway lines like "it's just PR." I do it in faculty meetings every time a colleague from another discipline says that. They expect it now. Be like the English teacher who always corrects grammar.
  • Be honest. Point out that there are people who spin, deceive, and are otherwise unethical. Some of them are PR people. But spin does not define an entire profession--it exhibits the character of one individual.
  • Appeal to reason. If people insist that PR is spin, ask them if they prefer the truth, and the complete truth. And then ask them if it is truthful to stereotype an entire profession based on media image or incomplete information.
  • Speak of your own experience with PR people. In my view, the vast majority I meet in West Michigan are intelligent, honest, and industrious.
  • Enlighten with evidence of how PR provides advocacy for and gives voice to the otherwise unheard in society (does Habitat for Humanity 'spin' when they communicate opportunities for volunteers or request donations?), or how PR people provide access to management that might otherwise be reticent, or how PR people counsel management to listen to, and not just communicate at, a variety of otherwise overlooked publics, etc etc etc.

    Finally, remember to look on the bright side. There are still more jokes about lawyers.
  • 5 comments:

    Knickcole Hall said...

    Tim,

    I couldn't agree more. Perhaps the best advice I ever received was from WMPRSA board members and Ron Greenfield at Ferris State when I was a student. I had to realize that if I was going to get a job in public relations then you have to apply the PRSA ethics to your personal life as well as to your professional life. It's about doing the best you can to give accurate information - not spinning it to make the story better. It's work and it's fun unfortunately too many people claim to be PR people who don't even know what pr is and it hurts all of us.

    Knickcole Hall

    Erin said...

    As a student, I have an extremely hard time explaining to people what my major entails. Whenever I tell someone what I am going to school for, I always get the response, "Oh. So you want to lie for a living?"

    At first, I didn't know how to respond to this. But now I break it down for people really plain and simple... I take real-life/personal situations and relate them to PR. It helps the person to not only have a better understanding of what PR is, but it relates it to their everyday life.

    I think a fair number of people have changed their way of thinking about PR after I have explained it to them in that way. I even started a blog about it... so if I can ever get myself to write in it, hopefully I will produce some good content for other PR students/professionals to use :)

    Tim Penning, APR said...

    Wow, not even a new business day and already some great comments from a recent grad and a current PR student. You both restore my faith and hope in the profession, and my reasons for being a PR educator:)

    Thanks for what you do.

    Charlotte said...

    Thank you for providing insight on how to combat the negative perceptions of PR! This is something that I would like to share with PRSSA members.

    Tim Penning, APR said...

    Absolutely, share with PRSSA.

    Also, a good book I'd recommend: "It's Not Just PR" by Timothy Coombs and Sherry Halladay. Great view of the profession from two PR educators.