Why public relations needs real public relations

A great reflection on the latest round of PR criticism is provided at Global Neighbourhoods: The Annual Bashing of PR practitioners.

Like many other service careers these days, the reputation of public relations is too often influenced by those who are not interested in best practice, acting ethically or adapting to changes such as social media.

Also, as criticisms largely originate from those on the receiving end of the “press agentry” (bling PR) approach, the wider remit and responsibilities of public relations are missed. 

Does this matter?  Isn’t PR big enough to withstand a bit of baiting?  That for me is the crux of the matter.  We need to be more confident and open about what we do – and practice real PR for PR.   That means the likes of need to up their game, but so do all those practitioners who dislike being associated with the poor reputation.  We need to prove, loud and proud, that PR means building relationships with publics (including the media and bloggers) based on ethical principles and solid values of respect and conversations not puff, publicitity, propaganda, spin or biased rhetoric.

We need an ethos of working with others – being helpful and responsive – prepared to argue our corner and demonstrate effectively to CEOs why isn’t really the answer.   Good PR practitioners need good CEOs and should never act as a barrier between the organisation and those who help form its reputation.   We should be facilitators and respected counsellors, not the special protection force.

Good organisations need good PR, to help them build and communicate a strong reputation and effective relationships with publics – as well as managing issues and possible crisis situations.

Media relations are part of this, and need to be conducted professionally.  PR will also often work with marketing and may create pseudo-news, but should ensure that this side of the profession doesn’t dominate, especially when poorly practised.

There will always be “rogue” PR practitioners, like the weakest link in any profession.  The challenge is to focus more on best practice and ensure people entering the profession don’t just learn bad habits from those who believe PR is intuitive rather than something that can be learned and improved.

Unfortunately this might not warrant a round of blogging discussion – because good news is rarely as interesting as highlighting problems.  

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

10 thoughts on “Why public relations needs real public relations”

  1. Interesting….

    With the news today that David Cameron has taken on the ex News of the World Editor as his spin doctor, or more correctly head of communications it once again raises the point about the power of presentation over ideas. It’s more and more a world where the method seems to be out running the message and nothing is going to change that.

    Heather you say “Good PR practitioners need good CEOs “, that begs an awful lot of questions. What happens if you don’t have a good CEO? Although a good CEO is likely to have good people around them in any event, but the perception of what is good may well have something to do with the PR people in any event!

  2. Richard – I was stunned to hear that Cameron had taken on a News of the World editor, who left his previous employment over an ethical issue. It is just so frustrating that high profile media are employed in PR all the time.

    Which leads into the point about PR and CEOs (leaders generally). Does Cameron not know the difference between professional PR and poacher-turned-gamekeeper? Sure, some journalists make good media relations managers (and even ultimately PR managers) – but most have such a narrow, outsiders’ viewpoint that led to the worst excesses of spin-doctoring.

    I think if you don’t have a good CEO as a good PR, you have a duty to try to educate them and as professional counsel aim to show the benefits of engaging rather than hiding. However, if they are fatally flawed, as a communicator (or even worse as a human being), then you may find your talents best served elsewhere.

    The problem with good PR creating a perception of a good CEO is that it will out in the end. The CEO like never before is expected to communicate directly and even if just internally, they won’t maintain a reputation if they aren’t effective.

    Interesting that Gordon Brown has his team operating on changing perceptions at the moment – in my view they are unlikely to succeed if the product is naturally dull. Silk purse and sow’s ear…

  3. What would you recommend this ex-editor to do in order to be a success as head of communications and expunge the narrow viewpoint trait demonstrated in the past?

  4. Jill – as per my most recent post on this appointment, I think anyone moving from journalism to PR needs to do what you’re doing and learn more about the true breadth and potential of PR. Ideally, this guy should sign up for the CIPR Diploma… but there are plenty of good books, people he could speak with, training sessions to attend etc.

  5. The crunch is that a good PR person is at the core of all organisational relationships. After a while that means that the PR role takes on the role of the non-exec Board. Battles ensue.

    If a PR person is competent, the inevitable consequence is that the main Board want rid of everyone except a press agent. Even one from News of the World.

    We need to know much more about relationships and what we really mean and know about the science behind the spin. I am getting a real problem with the name ‘Public Relations’. Public (s) Communication yes, but PR?

  6. I think some of the trouble with constructing good PR for PR comes with the portrayal of PR in the media most often consumed by the public: TV and films. The overwhelming stereotype of PR professionals is a sneaky, conniving, brown-noser or an air-headed young female with no real skills or wits about her. The general public isn’t aware of all the good communications work that would not get done with out PR. Much of our most earnest work is contributed to journalists.

  7. David, I think you are right that we need to seriously understand the implicatons of “public relations” – and be better at working with senior executives so they don’t see PR as threatening or even worse, as relationships and communications with inside and outside publics as spin and manipulation. I think executive counsel is a role that is not considered enough in public relations.

    Audrey – I don’t think the media always helps with portrayals of PR practitioners, but stereotyping is true of the way many people are treated – whether as heroes or villains. But as well as the fictional side, I often cringe when I see actual PR people on television. Not so much when doing their job, but if they turn up in quizzes or other programmes, they tend to reinforce such stereotypes.

    I think it is time for an “outing” campaign – I work in PR and am proud of it…

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