Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Why PR People Get A Bad Press

Guest post by: Adrian Wheeler

My first boss escaped from the Rank Organisation in 1968. He had spent ten years mediating between the press, Sir John Davis and Rank’s stable of celebrities. The experience left him with psychological scars and … well, experience. When he set up his own consulting firm he wanted nothing to do with ‘public relations’, so he coined the term ‘Corporate Relations Consultants’. It didn’t catch on.

Brian was an eccentric individual, but his aversion to ‘public relations’ typified the attitude of many first-class practitioners then and now. Whenever PR people get together they will, sooner or later, discuss how inappropriate ‘public relations’ is as a moniker and what we should call it instead. Anyone who can get away with describing themselves as something else – for instance, in lobbying or The City – does.

What’s wrong with ‘public relations’? I’ve always enjoyed the response when I tell people what I do for a living. In the early days it meant a furrowed brow: ‘What exactly is that?’ Later on the questions were more acute: ‘Ah – and what kind of clients do you work for?’ Nowadays the reaction can be more equivocal, and I think I see what Brian meant.

There are 2,400 public relations companies in the UK. Only 200 belong to the Public Relations Consultants Association. The CIPR says there are 40,000 public relations practitioners in the UK, of which only 10,000 belong to the Institute. This suggests that most people practising ‘public relations’ do not see it as a profession and do not want to get involved with standards, training and regulation. It probably also means they are not much good.

Statistically, most clients and journalists will meet three of those for every serious practitioner. No wonder clients are slow to trust their public relations advisors. No wonder journalists have a go at ‘PRs’ whenever they get the chance. It’s like an iceberg floating upside-down: general perceptions of public relations are created by the people who care about it least.

I don’t think there is any point in trying to invent a new word for ‘public relations’. Let’s tackle the quality problem from the other end: clients and journalists should begin any conversation with a ‘PR’ by asking: ‘Do you belong to the CIPR or the PRCA?’ If the answer’s ‘no’ they can continue the discussion at their own risk or put the phone down.

It would be naïve to think that every CIPR or PRCA member is free of fault. But at least they are trying to do their work well. They should be encouraged, supported and preferred; then we might see public relations recognised as a professional business service and we might all feel a lot happier calling ourselves public relations people.

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