Public relations or public enemy?
Working at my local pub, I recently made the mistake of telling a customer of my plans to work in PR. I hadn’t anticipated the impact this would have.
I was left completely speechless. I had no idea how to respond to this tirade of abuse against public relations. This made me ask why people have this distorted view of PR. Did this opinionated individual have a point? Do I really know what I’m letting myself in for?
From the moment I decided to study for a Masters in PR, I have received different reactions. Some are very negative whilst others say that they can really see me in PR. I’m now beginning to wonder whether this is a compliment or not.
Studying a subject like PR seems to pose a problem, mainly because it is a relatively new field of study. Many people ask me: “So what actually is PR?” whilst others can’t understand why I’m studying it at all responding with: “Oh I could do that, easy.” I would love to put them to the test.
It was reactions like these that spurred me into to writing about perceptions of PR for my dissertation.
Having looked through a variety of newspapers, it became slightly clearer why people may have a negative view of PR. It is often the case that the key players associated with a profession are generally the ones who make or break its reputation. When referring to PR, the most common PR name that appears in the media and that people are familiar with is Max Clifford.
Every time his name is mentioned, it is in conjunction with some form of cover up and often the PR profession is cast in a negative light. It makes this profession that I have been studying for the past year, seem like a joke.
I am starting to believe that PR’s reputation is an issue that practitioners simply learn to accept mainly because it is very difficult to control or change opinions. I am possibly going to find it difficult having spent time studying towards this profession only to find out it has very little respect from those outside of it. However, despite my concerns about PR’s reputation, I am aware that bad PR does exist and in some cases this does warrant the backlash.
One very well known case would be the apparently grassroots campaign ‘Walmarting across America’. This spontaneous-looking campaign turned out to be nothing other than a PR company deceiving the public to promote its client’s interests. This is starting to sound familiar but good cases of PR must not be overlooked. Having worked in a PR agency as part of my Masters degree, it made me realise how many companies need PR assistance. The agency’s clients were not forced into having PR; it was their choice.
The agency was not hired to manipulate or distort messages but simply to raise awareness of their clients’ brands through media coverage. There was no spin or dishonesty involved and this is an aspect of PR which is often overlooked.
In the case of a PR agency, the clients are the main priority. It goes without saying that without them, a PR agency would not be able to operate. If PR is viewed as negatively as I have described in this article, it is unlikely businesses would request the outside help of a PR agency. With regards to in-house PR, one key group of people who a company wants on its side is the press. This is perhaps a more challenging. For anyone who has ever read Guardian reporter Charles Arthur’s blog, you will know that journalists do not view PR practitioners in a particularly positive way. However through striking up relationships with the journalists who really matter, all is not lost.
It is fair to say that PR is viewed negatively by a number of individuals, but we should also ask: do they really matter? In my opinion, probably not. As long as we have the significant people on our side who see PR as their friend and provided we can cope with the occasional bruised ego, PR’s general reputation becomes less important. Ultimately, we know that PR will always play an important role whether people like it or not.
Photos by Victoria Louise Crampton