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Is PR Innately Immoral?

May 29th, 2008 · 16 Comments · Advertising, PR, Social Media

This week has taken on a PR theme. On Monday night I had the good fortune to spend time with Shel Holtz and Joe Thornley of Thornley Fallis who were in town for 3rd Tuesday Montreal, a monthly social media event. Both of these men understand the changes that social media has brought to PR and have embraced them.

At the same time I was sitting with Shel and Joe, Brian Solis of FutureWorks had a lengthy guest post on TechCrunch on PR Secrets for Startups. This led Seesmic founder Loic LeMeur to take a stance that PR is overpriced, irrelevant and ineffectual for start-ups; instead, he feels getting involved in the community is all that’s really needed. This sparked a lively debate on whether there is even a need for PR with all the social media tools widely available. Everyone from Robert Scoble to Stowe Boyd were chiming in with their thoughts, generating hundreds of comments in the blogosphere, and detailed clarification by Solis.

It seemed everywhere I turned this week, someone was bashing PR and marketing, using the terms interchangeably with equal distaste. (Look here and here for the difference.) The general feelings were that PR and marketing folks have lied to people for so long, that they are no longer to be trusted. And that authenticity and transparency, the tenets of social media, could never possibly be adopted with any reliability by the flacks and hucksters in PR.

All of this negativity towards PR leaves me wondering if poor practices have irreparably injured public relations as a whole. If PR has truly changed with social media, perhaps they’ve done a really poor job of convincing people of that. Or maybe these are still early days and the changes have yet to be proven.

This period in the evolution of PR reminds of what was happening in the advertising industry in the early ’70′s. Back then, advertising as a profession was seen as “innately immoral”, where no standards of conduct were in place and a wild west mentality threatened to have the whole industry regulated by governments. Advertising took steps to become self-regulated. Is PR at the same stage now?

(Update: The Phreadz embedded player has changed since originally posted. Click on the green arrow to play the entire conversation in order, or, click the thumbnails to view individual responses.)

Additional resources mentioned in these videos:
Background on Truth in Advertising: The Robert A. McAlear Memorial Award
Will fake business blogs crash and burn?

The Worst Social Media Ad Campaigns of 2007

So, tell me: what do people really think of PR? I’d love to know.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Ronna Porter

    I don’t even try to defend public relations any more. The term means too many things to too few people, and too few things to too many people. Public relations is only as good as the people who are doing it. While I’ve not met many people in PR I’d categorise as intrinsically evil, I have come across the inspired and the conflicted; the dedicated and the slacker; the jack of all trades and the occassional master at using the varied tools – or more importantly getting them all working together.

    Looking for people who are respected by there peers, have some appropriate training under their belt, and are affiliated to organisations that hold members to a code of practice is probably a good, if uninspiring, starting point.

    Then again, blaming PR for being intrinsically evil is probably more fun.

  • Danacea

    I think it very much depends upon what you’re promoting and your own passion for what you do. As a marketeer, are you driven by belief – or are you driven by targets, numbers and a quintessential desire to foist something unnecessary on an unsuspecting public? A little basic human respect and ethic – as Ronna said above – is a good place to begin.

    Like all tools, it’s not intrinsically evil in itself, it’s what you do with it that matters!

  • Tim (@Twalk) Walker

    Good post, Adele. Ronna and Danacea are on the right track, too. The thing that tires me about the P.R. debate (if that’s the right word) among social media-ites is that it continues to perpetrate the nonsense that P.R. is one thing. By simple observation, it isn’t. There are a zillion P.R. folks and P.R. firms, with a wide range of practices even within a single firm.

    I get clueless P.R. e-mails, too, but I also know top-flight P.R. folks who want to make sure that their clients’ *good* deeds and *good* products get some attention. Since that need isn’t going away, public relations isn’t going away. Yes, there will always be spinmeisters working the angles, but what’s new about that? The practice predates the P.R. industry by, . . . I’m gonna say by several centuries, at least.

    You really hit on something here: “Or maybe these are still early days and the changes have yet to be proven.” Forget social media for a second: the INTERNET is still in its embryonic, Wild West stage, like the automotive industry circa 1905. There’s still a lot of shaking-out to do, and at some level our Big Pronouncements about “what P.R. means” etc. are little more than bravado — even if that bravado is, for many of the worthies you’ve cited here, well-informed.

  • Steven Lubetkin

    For what it’s worth, the large professional organizations, IABC and PRSA, both have codes of ethics and professional standards to which their members pledge to hold themselves. These codes are voluntary, but they contain good guidelines for professional practice and I incorporate the PRSA standards (by reference) into every contract I sign with a client.

    Public relations gets a bad reputation because of bad practitioners who don’t understand what constitutes ethical behavior, and the professional societies should really consider ramping up the education process to get their members up to speed (encouraging professional accreditation or certification is one way to get people to learn ethics and standards).

  • Lauren Vargas

    This debate never ends! I do think PR needs to be regulated. The premise of my blog is the twelve steps of industry reform…and I have been weaving these steps into writings and teachings for over two years! As a young professional, I am scared my chosen profession and passion is so negatively viewed. I feel as if I am constantly in a defensive posture. As one person, I can only stand up for what I believe in and show the good in my practices. There are bad apples in every industry, but reinforcing the behavior of these bad apples is hindering our profession.

  • Social Media Mafia

    One aspect of (I’m not a PR person by the way, but..) PR, is about reaching your target audience, and talking in the channels they operate in and with a language they understand, it is basic level 1 sociology and communications.

    For those NOT in Internet aimed start-ups, let’s say a plumbing business, to talk of Internet communities only and not using traditional PR is franky dumb and short-sighted of a significant magnitude.

  • gregory

    it’s all in your motivation …

    trying to get? evil

    trying to give? good

  • Zane Safrit

    You’re asking are the people in PR immoral? It’s a fair question, really, still a bit tricky though. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the tail from the dog. Is it the corporation whose goals degrade a PR firms initiative into something embarassing? Or is it the PR firms who lead their client offtrack?

    Does that make everyone involved, client or agency, immoral?

    I think we all fall victim to myopic, short-sighted, goals and tactics to reach those goals. And we’re allowed, permitted, empowered by the silence of those around us.

    PR firms don’t operate in a vaccum any more than any of us do. And this issue didn’t arrive today.

    The change is this social media arriving at the time grass roots democracy in politics and business all call for more…honesty, morality, accountability, transparency…just plain decency. It gives voice to all the things we all talk about quietly among ourselves over dinner.

    I wouldn’t throw the PR firms under this new bus of transparency (though a few years ago I did, on occasion). They had a lot of encouragement along the way. Now with social media, there’s encouragement and tools and voices to get them and us back on track.

  • Ryan Anderson

    When I’m not busy sacrificing babies to the Dark Lord Bernays, I’m a PR guy, and frankly, I’ve been getting a little bit sick of the constant diatribes that PR people are horrible parasites. The problem is, some of them are.

    The answer is education and training. I talk to a lot of PR firms in my line of work from all over North America. Some of them get it, some of them completely miss the point. The only way we can shift the balance is to keep learning, keep training, and keep exposing the weak links in our chain.

    I think self-regulation would be an extremely difficult process, but may end up being what’s necessary. In all honesty, I think what PR looks like in even 5 years will be very different than the way it looks today, and I expect it will be far less siloed and specialty than it is today.

  • Sara Goldstein

    Looks like most of the people weighing in are bloggers, so just wanted to share why they hate PR so much.

    For 2 years, I ran a reasonably successful blog called The Bargain Queen — it was #1 fashion blog in Australia for a while, but never huge by global standards. In the time I’ve run it, the amount of spam from PR companies has gotten higher and higher. Seems like every PR company that doesn’t get social media tells their clients they can do it, hires an intern and instructs them to email press releases to lots of bloggers, with little regard to relevance.

    Personally, I get enough PR spam that it takes half an hour or so every day to sort it out. If it’s that bad for a moderately successful blogger like myself, imagine what the ‘big guys’ like Scoble face?

    So when bloggers start saying ‘PR is evil’, they possibly mean, ‘I hate the clueless PRs who fill my email with irrelevant press releases every single day’. When that’s their main experience of the whole PR industry, can you blame us bloggers for hating PR flacks?

    PS: NO, I don’t PERSONALLY hate PR people. I’m married to a non-evil PR person. Yes, they do exist :)

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  • Rick Wolff

    As I put it on Twitter today: “PR’s job, then and now: prove the true, disprove the false, hype the good, admit the bad. Only now, we can tell when you lie.”

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  • Staffeen Thompson

    To start, the reputation of PR would change – if PR professionals would treat other PR professionals with more respect. As a new Communications professional, I’ve quickly learned that we (at all stages in our careers) need to be accountable for our actions, especially in our current ‘transparent’ climate. I’m stupefied at the behaviour of some professionals towards PR volunteers, towards PR interns, towards their fellow colleagues. Perhaps I’m naïve in believing this? Naïve and jaded all at the same time.

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  • CS

    Today’s Social Media sites are swimming in propaganda, spreading far and wide instantaneously and turning people into camps who buy right into it versus those who question it.

    If that’s how PR has adapted to the Internet, I’d say it’s inherently immoral.

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