PR gets an 'unjustifiably' bad rap
OPINION: Practically every day I see PR unjustifiably getting a bad rap in the media.
As someone who has been in the industry for more than twenty years, I do struggle with it because I know we uphold good standards of research, measurement, advice, and honesty.
The latest collective PR sigh was Stuff's reprint of a Sydney Morning Herald article: "The PR Industry has a lot to answer for". It cited three recent faux pas: the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad that seemed to trivialise Black Lives Matter demonstrations; the incomprehensibly awful United Airlines passenger dragging incident – and subsequent bad apology; and White House spokesman Sean Spicer's statement that even Hitler didn't sink to using chemical weapons.
And, of course, the article blamed bad PR. Here's the thing: maybe it wasn't bad PR. Maybe it wasn't PR at all.
* Sean Spicer would like to clarify his clarification of his clarification
* Pepsi pulls Kendall Jenner ad after it gets shredded online
* United passenger David Dao suffered broken nose and lost teeth, says lawyer
I cringed when I saw these issues play out in the media too, but the difference was that - unlike the Sydney Morning Herald - I didn't blame the PR industry. I didn't think: "Oh, some terrible PR advice has gone on here." What I actually thought was: "They clearly didn't listen to their PR advisers – if indeed they asked them at all."
If I can share one insight from my own PR career, it is that we generally give advice that we know is right. It is honest, truthful, open, balanced, and ameliorative - but sometimes it's just not palatable to the person we're advising.
They know better. Or worse, we weren't asked until it was too late.
The irony is that a chief executive may listen more to a lawyer or HR person because there are tangible legal consequences. What we do as PR people is often not measurable in such concrete terms; our currency is reputation, not dollars or court cases.
The palatability issue seems to have been at play in the United Airlines incident. It doesn't ring true that United Airlines' PR advice would have been to accuse the passenger of being stroppy. I just don't think the top man really wanted to apologise.
His company's value had been tracking down, he was probably under pressure from his board, and he didn't want to grovel. But you can be sure that, if there was any PR person behind him, they would have been begging him to give a generous, unreserved, 100 per cent apology. And when he didn't, and the company lost even more value, he probably turned to the PR person and told them to sort this mess out.
With the well-meaning but naive Pepsi ad, it was probably a bright idea by marketers – who are not technically PR people. It's possible a PR person got nowhere near that ad until the proverbial hit the fan. They're probably clearing up the mess now, with their first piece of advice being to withdraw the ad and apologise for any offence. (And make a substantial payment to a charity, no doubt.)
However, the Sean Spicer/Hitler case is indefensible. Spicer is a PR person. Not just any PR person - he's got what is probably the top PR job in the world: White House press secretary. He really should have known better than to say Hitler didn't sink to using chemical weapons.
Duh. Any PR person worth their salt would have told him not to use Hitler as any kind of bar, and certainly not to discount gas chambers as genocidal chemical weapons.
The fact is that Sean Spicer isn't doing the PR profession any favours. Everyone laughed when he claimed Trump's inauguration was the most watched in history. And when Kellyanne Conway, Trump's counsellor, sought to defend him, she launched the phrase "alternative facts" into the 2017 lexicon, and George Orwell's 1984 onto the bestseller list.
The Public Relations Society of America rightly criticised the use of the phrase. Unfortunately the whole "alternative facts" saga has supported the media's regular and unfortunate references to "spin" whenever PR is mentioned – another collective sigh.
Not many people know this, but when New Zealand PR people sign up to Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ), we have to stick to a hard code of ethics that includes truthfulness. If my boss asked me to lie, even through omission, I must refuse, or be called to account and kicked out of PRINZ.
Being a member of PRINZ means our members have access to continuing education to ensure they can give the best advice, including the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) – the industry qualification.
The problem with our industry is that people can set themselves up as PR experts without PR qualifications. They might previously have been strategists or marketers or journalists - and work outside the parameters of PRINZ.
Sometimes their advice and behaviour isn't the best – yet we cannot call them to account. We have to watch the whole industry get the blame.
An organisation has to be prepared to (a) hire a good, qualified PR person and (b) listen to them like they would their lawyer or HR expert. Maybe Pepsi and United Airlines aren't doing both of these well enough.
The point is: We don't know. Yet the article reflexively blames the PR person for what the chief executive is doing, without knowing how much influence they were able to have. We're the silent profession, standing behind our chief executives. We are really unlikely to publicly say "that wasn't my advice", unless the relationship has broken down.
And finally, PR isn't all about the media. It's about relationships, reputation, and knowing what the people who matter to you think and how they'll behave and react. This includes customers, employers, and competitors.
We're like an iceberg – the bit you see in the media is only the tip. Underwater there's hidden depth.
PRINZ will be celebrating some of that hidden depth in our annual PR awards at the end of May, and I look forward to recognising the talent and integrity inherent in our industry.
* Katie Mathison is president of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand.