How We Can Fix PR’s Image Problem

As some people may know, I’m a sitting member of the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) Committee in Northern Ireland. This is something I give up my time freely for because I’m passionate about my job, because I love to learn and meet new people and because I want to do my bit to improve the industry if I can.

Recently across the UK, CIPR committee members have been asked to share their views on the reputation damage inflicted on Public Relations in recent years and what we can do to redeem ourselves. Never one to waste a piece of content creation, I thought I may as well add to the public discussion here, as well as sending my feedback to the Institute.

PR has an image problem of its own

The source of the problem is a mixture of high-profile scandals (such as the Max Clifford debacle) and a continued lack of widespread understanding about what we do, following on from years of Spin Doctor propaganda fuelled by the work of Alistair Campbell, among others. So it’s no wonder the general public lumps us all together as one, homogenous, not-to-be-trusted group.

Heck, if our First Minister can stereotype, what else can we expect from Joe Bloggs?

Now what should we do about it? Well the obvious answer would be to turn our ‘evil talents’ on ourselves and treat the industry’s image problem as though it was a paying client with a brief. What would we advise them to do?

Well coming from an in-house background, spent mostly in cash-strapped charities, this changing public attitudes brief is something we’re used to. So here’s what I think…

Educate, Educate, Educate

The public tend to think that PR comprises 3 things:

1. Propaganda
2. Covering up bad news
3. Stunts to sell

Again, this is common; to become well-known for the most high-profile (usually scandalous) things you’re involved in. It’s the eternal problem of trying to promote Good News in a world that feeds off Bad News. As with many issues, turning this around can start from small roots and doesn’t require large scale nationwide campaigns to change public attitude.

The problem is that, as PR professionals, most people don’t take care of their own PR. They shy away from discussing their job in public. And they don’t promote their work in terms of the professional and measurable elements. Very few agencies blog or make a concerted effort to engage on social media. This is probably because they get little out of it. And I believe that is because most only publicise the end product – the news article, the set-up press shot, or the stunt. What happened in the background? In the lead-up? I’ve written about “the secret service of PR” before. The lack of information about the research, creativity and strategy that goes into each client piece doesn’t help when we need to inform people that what we do is more than just “fluff”.

I realise that this is a competitive industry. But everyone will be competing for less work if the general negativity rubs off on all those who would have traditionally seen value in purchasing Public Relations activity!

The Individual vs the Group

Too much of our discussions revolve around what “the industry” needs to do. Discussions like this are a waste of time. It’s like sitting in a meeting where everyone talks about what needs to be done but the minutes don’t have any names attached to the action points.

People need to make an effort at all levels – individually, at work, in larger groups/committees and then together as a UK-wide professional body.

For example, as an individual I blog. This takes substantial time and effort. I’m not a sole practitioner nor agency staff, so it brings nothing to me commercially. Among the benefits for me, I see myself as a very small cog in the big wheel of increasing awareness about the industry in my local area. By publishing my blog posts on my personal social networks I’ve engaged numerous members of the general public with previously little-to-no knowledge of what my job entails. I now tell people what I do when I meet them for the first time and welcome their questions or an opportunity to dispute any misconceptions. I will of course join any group work too, but I can start with myself, in my daily life. We all can.

Professionalising the Profession

Another piece of work I’m involving myself in (glutton for punishment that I am) is networking with other Communications Professionals in the Not-for-Profit sector with a view to increasing membership of the CIPR from within this group. Years ago, before joining, I felt the CIPR member benefits in NI (such as training and events) were aimed mostly at those who worked commercially in agencies/for themselves. I now realise this supply is reflective of the member base here. Hence supply meets demand. So, much like the Chicken and the Egg story, the demand could increase first - encouraging charitable in-house professionals to take membership even when they see small benefits (and large costs) initially, their benefits could increase by proving there is an audience for different training/events.

But a third reason is emerging. Northern Ireland has a large Third Sector and Communications is (thankfully) increasingly being invested in by Trustee Boards. More and more jobs are being advertised in this area, despite the recession. Unfortunately they can sometimes be filled by people who may not possess the same in-depth knowledge of the industry standards that the rest of us sign up to in the CIPR Code of Conduct. Some people have never worked in the industry, let alone studied it. And let’s not open the “journalists-moving-sideways” can of worms.

There is absolutely a need for and merit in encouraging more people to sign up to industry approved regulations, CPD requirements and best practice award opportunities as a means to professionalise the PR profession.

So that’s my tuppence worth. What’s yours?