Defending PR

Two years ago an old woman snailed by my house in Eugene, Ore as I sat on the porch. She started chatting with me, asking, “What are you studying?” I obediently told her that I was studying journalism.

“Are you going to be an honest journalist or a dishonest journalist?” she snarkily asked.

Little did I know that that was only the beginning of my defense of public relations.

I have had to clarify time and again to friends and family the definition of public relations. Many people have thrown out phrases like “spin doctor” or characters like Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones when inquiring about my future in the industry. I was told that even Noam Chomsky, who recently spoke at the University of Oregon, took a stab a PR, portraying it as a manipulative profession to 2,000 of my peers.

Although the definition of public relations does vary across the industry, here is one I like best, from Strategic Communications Planning for Effective Public Relations & Marketing:

Public relations is an organization’s efforts to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships in order to communicate and cooperate with the publics upon whom long-term success depends (stakeholders).

There are constant cases of bad public relations (like the BP oil spill) and good public relations (like the Red Cross Twitter mishap) that pop up, but there is no step-by-step procedure to implementing public relations strategies. Each case is uniquely different, which makes the job so dynamic and creative (and challenging).

This also means that when public relations efforts go awry, the whole industry gets pulled down. The horribly handled efforts of the BP oil spill, for example, identified PR professionals as scheming, dishonest people who have only the company’s, not the public’s, interest in mind.

Unfortunately, good cases of PR don’t boost its reputation as much as it should. I have learned to embrace my defense of PR, lead by example and explain to as many people that ethical public relations does exist.

NPR announced today a month-long series on its Morning Edition examining public relations. I encourage you to follow it – it will be interesting to see how an accredited news channel like NPR covers the industry.

8 responses to this post.

  1. I love public relations, this career path suits me very well; however, I understand your frustration with PR stereotypes that we fight on a daily basis. For example at my first internship interview… “Well this is a PR/Marketing Internship so maybe by the end of it you’ll change your mind. There is more money to be made on the marketing side.” In my everyday life people mock social media, especially Twitter or LBS. They do not see nor use the value of the social media systems. While that works for them they do not understand that not all social media options are best for everyone/every kind of business. And I feel like this soured stereotype stems from the fact that there are people who “practice PR” and have ZERO training.

    Excellent post and analyzation!



  2. I too have had a hard time with other people bashing public relations. I found that half the people don’t know what it is and the other half, like you mentioned, only know what it is through what they see on film or television. I think the only real way to combat this stereotype will be to try and be as ethical and transparent as possible to gain trust and understanding. Excellent post Jenna.


  3. Posted by pdxsx on April 26, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Good post Jenna. I’m afraid you are going to be fighting this battle for a long, long time.



  4. It’s funny to because our field advertising and PR are merging into some sort of marketing and business conceptual managing that is blurring the field even more.


  5. Posted by mrblisterdundee on April 28, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    I’ll admit that I try to avoid as many PR people as possible when I’m reporting. I see them as go-betweens giving coached answers. People in the 21st century are too worried about saying the wrong thing. If I’m researching someone, I want to talk to the person on the ground, not their agent. When Shauna Haynes told the class how she wrote most of the mayor of Beaverton’s speeches, I immediately respected him less.
    I think a lot of what is and isn’t positive PR has a lot to do with which organization you work for. BP’s PR people looked like assholes because they were speaking on behalf of and running interference for assholes. You work for an organization that few are critical of.


  6. I’ll check out that series on NPR. It sounds interesting. Like with any field, you can do good work or “evil” work. There are plenty of news people who are doing much worse for the collective good than PR people, just watch FOX News (yeah, cliche I know). But I guess the broader point is that the PR is not inherently an evil business. It just gets a bad rap from corporations that use PR to obfuscate their evil-doings. Keep doing good work.


  7. Great post, Jenna! I absolutely hate that people’s first response when I tell them I’m studying PR is to ask me if I mean what Samantha from Sex in the City does! Unfortunately the outlandish and the bad examples seem to stick out so much more than the good the rest of us want to do! Hopefully one day that will change.


  8. Nice post, I enjoyed reading all of these comments too. I’m very interested too in seeing what NPR has to say about PR.


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