Public relations is a profession that has long been at war with itself. Those of us who are in PR are used to be calling nasty names because of what we do. The most common is “flack,” and I am still not sure of the etymology of the term. Some of my peers say that Tom Wolfe first coined the term in Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers; others tell me that it has to do with catching enemy fir, such as anti-aircraft shells or flak. in any case, we take heat from both our clients and the media. Event the PRSA is struggling to identify the proper definition for “public relations.”
Because public relations people are inevitably placed in the middle. We often have to help a client telll a bad story or try to put a positive face on a disaster, as well as helping them tell a good story or when they have good news. And as far as the press is concerned, they can’t tell when we have something truly useful or are just trying to hype a client product or service. Reporters have come to distrust and even loathe PR people because all too many of us act like used car salesmen in order to “sell” a bad client story. I think Peter Shankman. the founder of HARO (Help a Reporter Out), summed it up nicely in a Forbes interview this week:
There will always be problems between PR people and journalists, no matter how much we try and repair the rift. Look, fundamentally, the two are simply designed to oppose. On one hand, you have journalists, who have the job of finding actual news – a good story, a trend, something interesting. That’s not easy to do, and they’re being asked every day to do more with less. On the flip side, you have PR people, who are beholden to the request of the clients – A very simple, yet incredibly complex request: “Get us press.” I’d say the biggest mistake PR people make is not standing up to the client and occasionally saying “Hey, that press release you want us to issue about you repainting the conference room? THAT’S NOT NEWS. NO ONE IS GOING TO COVER THAT, AND IF YOU MAKE US PITCH FIFTY JOURNALISTS ABOUT IT, WE CAN GUARANTEE THAT THOSE FIFTY JOURNALISTS WILL NEVER COVER US AGAIN, EVEN WHEN WE DO HAVE SOMETHING WORTH WRITING ABOUT.”
For some, the thought of PR ethics is an oxymoron. For others of us who take our profession and its ethics seriously, we understand that our job is to not only counsel the client, but to advocate for the press. When a client has a bad story or wants to publicize the new paint on the conference room, it’s the PR professional’s job to tell the client his story stinks and no one will care. No one wants to tell someone their baby is ugly, but if a story is bad you have to point it out.
There is a broad-reaching misconception that public relations is the same as publicity. Those who can’t understand the difference are the same folks who think that any press is good press. Publicity is not PR. And any story is not a good story.
Kudos to my friend, Dr. Mitchell Friedman, who is a long-time PR practitioner and now is teaching PR practice and ethics to the next generation of flacks. As Mitchell points out, publicity is not public relations:
Public relations has a far different orientation, as noted in PRSA’s aforementioned campaign to redefine the function. Responsibilities include building and managing relationships with an organization’s key audiences (both internal and external); overseeing its reputation (or what’s often referred to as “managing the corporate brand”); and serving as the organization’s conscience. Publicity and media relations are part of this equation, along with a variety of other functions.
Mitchell has identified eight well-reasoned principals for what makes good public relations which I agree with wholeheartedly. My role as a PR professional has evolved substantially in 20 years. On my best days, I am working with senior management to support corporate marketing, refine and reinforce brand messages, and manage conversations and relationships inside and outside the organization. On my best days, I get to act as a corporate conscience, pointing out when something is wrong and won’t work and how to navigate a bad situation with honesty and integrity. On my bad days, I have to hype a bad product or make something out of nothing, often putting lipstick on the pig to try to hide the fact it’s a pig. Fortunately, since I am self-employed, I have more latitude in telling a client when he or she is wrong, but I recall many instances from my agency days when you grin and agree to whatever the client says because he or she is writing the check.
It’s past time that those of us in PR stop worrying about the clip count and start worrying about the quality of the story and how we are managing our client’s reputation. Our profession is not about creating buzz but rather building brand and brand awareness. My role continues to broaden as I review web content, help with customer relations, and work with marketing and sales to help my clients promote their brand promise. I rely less on media calls these days and more on web optimization to do my job. That’s because I not just a publicist. I am a public relations professional.