Thursday, October 30, 2014

Defining PR a Challenge Amid Dishonest Media Cultivation

It happened again. A major PR association set out to define "public relations", and the media responded by calling the profession "spin."

This is getting old.

But to get up to date on the current matter, here's a rundown. The Council of PR Firms has rebranded itself and in so doing taken it upon itself to re-brand the entire public relations industry. You can see more about this effort in their "manifesto." (I immediately cringe when they position public relations within marketing, but that's the subject of another post).

 This follows on the tails of PRSA's work to come up with a new common definition of public relations in 2012. The resulting definition pleased some but critics remain.

But, as always, the news media covering the PR industry couldn't resist resorting to diminishing the effort with smug references to PR as "spin." Witness the effort of New York Times scribe Stuart Elliott, whose column is touted as about advertising, but he lumps public relations within it, thus broadcasting some professional ignorance or at least courtesy as to what public relations people actually do.

Industry trade PR Week took on Elliott and the Times directly with a commentary by editor Steve Barrett. I appreciate the effort and agree with the perspective. But this won't be the end of it.

In a paper I wrote in 2008 for the Journal of Communication Management ("First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s"), I point out how the media persistently refused to give a complete view of the profession in the decade it was first commonly called "public relations." Pioneers from Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, Arthur Page and others argued and demonstrated that public relations work was already evolving to be more than publicity and was about honest relationships with multiple publics on behalf of organizations. Time Magazine and Editor & Publisher were wickedly scathing in their assessment of the "new" profession of PR, hypocritically resorting to subjective commentary over objective reporting.

So this latest kerfluffle with the Council of PR Firms and the New York Times take on their efforts is more of the same.

I know Stuart Elliott. He graciously came to speak at Grand Valley State University at my invitation in 2003 when our School of Communications celebrated its 20th anniversary. He was a delight to spend a few days with, and he enjoyed seeing neighborhoods of Grand Rapids as I drove him to and from a TV interview about the history and future of advertising, the subject of his speech to us. It may have gone so well because, ahem, the New York Times PR office assisted in the trip.

But I wonder if his resorting to casting PR as "spin" in his recent article is the tired habit of trying to find an engaging lead over an honest and balanced report. Or kit could be laziness in falling on a cliche or stereotype rather than really listen to the subjects of the story and report it, even if it means interviewing several sources in the field to show a balanced perspective. I worry that Elliott lets his opinion out, and his opinion is not well formed, as evidence by some passages in his article that assert attempts to influence are at odds with transparency and honesty. I would love to ask his opinion of newspaper editorials.

None of this is to say that PR should be without criticism. There are, as in any profession, bad apples who should be called out for bad practice. But journalists should not over-generalize or stereotype entire professions. A little reporting might actually reveal, as I've noted previously, that some of the worst offenders with regard to unethical PR practice come from journalism, or are non-PR people doing PR, or have no education in PR.

But no, this media cultivation and framing of PR by journalists will likely continue. The hope comes in that many journalists, especially when you get out of the biased bi-coastal media centers, have more full and productive relationships with PR professionals. Witness a recent event sponsored by the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA in which morning news producers or anchors from all four area network affiliates stressed their need for help discovering content for their programs.

In the end, I think it best that PR people don't get too morose about select examples of journalists putting forth opinions of our field as if factual. They over-generalize PR people, let's not as PR people over-generalize journalists.

I am launching a study about this next semester. I'll be working with an undergraduate honors student looking at journalists' opinions about news releases and pitches they receive and associating their assessment of them as helpful or annoying and looking for variance based on the sender's PR credentials, actual job function and other factors.

I can't wait to report the honest results.


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