Magazine article Communication World

Rescuing PR's Reputation: Multiple Challenges Have Put Public Relations Practitioners on the Defensive-But There Are Ways to Save the Profession's Credibility and Integrity

Magazine article Communication World

Rescuing PR's Reputation: Multiple Challenges Have Put Public Relations Practitioners on the Defensive-But There Are Ways to Save the Profession's Credibility and Integrity

Article excerpt

Corporate communication is facing a credibility crisis, and public relations practitioners are especially vulnerable. This crisis stems from a significant gap between theory and practice in the profession. Issues of identity, ethics and competence are undermining PR's reputation. As far back as 1992, in Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, edited by James Grunig, IABC identified a lack of respect for the PR profession as a critical challenge, particularly in view of the climate of distrust in which practitioners were operating. As long as we ignore these issues, our credibility will be in jeopardy.

Despite its strategic management function, PR continues to be perceived as simply publicity. So long as our clients assume that media relations is all we do, we are limited in our ability to provide comprehensive services. Getting "free publicity" is one of the most common client expectations, and it is often the primary measure of a practitioner's effectiveness. At the same time, members of the news media, no matter how hungry they are for stories, remain justifiably skeptical of the newsworthiness of leads coming from our offices. Indeed, they rarely view PR practitioners as equal partners in public information, and hostility between the professions is common.

Moreover, the line between public relations and marketing has blurred. This is narrowing the definition of the discipline to corporate profit making. Yet, as Ange Frymire, president of Vocal Point Communications in Victoria, British Columbia, points out, "Only one-third of the bottom line is financial. It should also be social and environmental." Indeed, the essence of public relations is relationships with publics. Yet some employers measure the effectiveness of PR efforts based on sales figures. Nick Douloff, public relations program coordinator at Ryerson University in Toronto, suggests that the PR practitioner's role is not to increase sales but rather "[to build] relationships and favorably [predispose] publics toward clients by securing good reputation based on good performance." Of course, as long as practitioners go along with promising results beyond their capacity to deliver (for example, increased sales), PR will continue to be subordinated to achieving short-term product-sales goals.

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Watching out for "disasters"

Reactive solutions in crisis management have also become associated with public relations, with organizational crises often relabeled in popular culture as "PR disasters" or "PR nightmares." Patricia Parsons, professor of public relations at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, notes that "several high-profile public relations disasters have reinforced our reputation for 'covering things.'" Michael Turney, professor of communications at Northern Kentucky University, assigns responsibility for this negative view to certain practitioners who are "in the habit of publicly bragging about what they can accomplish, how well they can spin, turn things around--so something negative winds up sounding positive." While proactively preparing crisis plans and executing crisis communications are necessary, PR is almost exclusively associated with ex post facto damage control in the eyes of the public. This association casts doubt on the integrity of clients as well as on practitioners' ethics.

Representing clients who are considered morally objectionable can also call into question the ethics of a firm or practitioner. In the criminal justice system, even the guilty are entitled to representation. However, representing all clients and causes, regardless of their moral status in society, can have serious consequences. In fact, certain agencies with "gray area" clients have begun to rethink who they represent and have even declined to take on certain clients who provoke moral controversy. While PRSA's Matrix of Ethical Dilemmas clearly identifies "representing unhealthy causes; representing unpopular causes/ clients; and representing criminal clients" as problematic, the "gray area" clientele are not necessarily excluded from public relations practice. …

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