Upholding PR standards starts with the small things

"Will you join with me and other PR bloggers in a grassroots blogging campaign to help raise the perception of the public relations industry?" asked Steven Phenix of The Alliant Group in Austin, Texas, in an email yesterday.

Happy to, I replied. PR’s been getting a lot of, well, bad PR lately, as illustrated by the Armstrong Williams and Ketchum ethics issue that’s had lots of blogosphere discussion. Also see an interesting analysis by Nick Wreden (thanks, Colby, for the link) with some pithy suggestions on what Ketchum should have done once the scandal became public. Then take a look at CNN’s report last week when President Bush denounced paying commentators, referring specifically to this matter.

In light of all this, Steven’s request has had me thinking: help raise the perception of the public relations industry. That’s seems to be quite a tall order.

Let’s look at a couple of definitions of PR:

Well, many people say that PR certainly hasn’t served anyone’s publics in light of ‘Ketchumgate’ or whatever you want to call it. When US press critic and writer Jay Rosen slammed the PR bloggers for not taking a stand on the ethics issues, that generated lots of lively discussion to his post, and resulted in subsequent posts with more discussion.

What I noted in the comments to Rosen’s posts were far too many people adding opinions saying, basically, that they weren’t surprised because all PR does is spin things and tell untruths, so no one should be surprised at all to read about payola in PR.

What a sorry situation for a profession! Yet this isn’t new, neither is it just the PR profession (and we all know those bad jokes about lawyers – what does that say for what people think about that profession?). That’s certainly not excusing it, just saying it’s not new.

Other than every PR professional taking an individual stand in the absence of any stand for the profession by any professional association, what’s to be done? What can any PR professional do to raise the perception of PR as an honourable profession?

I think each one of us can do many things on our own account. Here are just three:

  1. Do your job to the best of your ability, in the most professional way you can.
  2. By your deeds, demonstrate to your employer and/or your clients that you are professional, are honest and have high personal standards of integrity.
  3. Make your own personal commitment to follow your professional association’s code of ethics to the best of your ability. A good guide for this is IABC’s Code of Ethics.

The thing is, individually we can’t change an awful lot, especially when it’s just a matter of time before the next Ketchumgate arrives. Yes, that may look like a cynical view but I think it’s just realistic. Unfortunately.

But be true to yourself. It’s the small things that do make a difference.

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9 thoughts on “Upholding PR standards starts with the small things

  1. Neville: You ought to critically examine the way, in the wake of my post, PR bloggers made the issue PressThink’s research, after finding that I had missed some posts in my review of what PR bloggers said about Ketchum.
    It’s a pathetic story. With each found post the “scandal” of Rosen’s research methods grew. Trevor Cook, leading the spin, actually asked whether I had misused the data on purpose to give PR a black eye!
    Never mind that PressThink instantly corrected itself with a follow up post that noted everything the first one had missed. (A fact routinely ignored by PR bloggers who were “outraged” by my oversights.) Never mind the fact that, even with all posts counted, the response to Ketchum fell far, far short, given the seriousness of the issue for PR professionals. Never mind the fact that my post triggered what was easily the largest wave of self-examination ever among PR bloggers, who finally starting asking questions about their professional associations.
    Now, in a wonderful case of PR’s addiction to spin, and a perfect illustration of why people don’t trust the profession, PR bloggers spun themselves a story about Rosen’s “discredited” post. Look at that episode, Neville. It speaks volumes.

  2. Jay, exhaustively researching which blogs said what and when is still a pretty inexact science, I think, even with some of the neat tools we have at our disposal (unless you use a specific tracking system rather than just a Technorati or Google search). Your first post on the Ketchum/Armstrong issue did fall well short of the mark in accurately identifying who had blogged the issue, and drew lots of comments from PR bloggers who had actually blogged about it but weren’t mentioned in your post. I thought Lisa did a great job in further research after that and then naming who said what and when. Nevertheless, some people did seem quite concerned about whether they were acknowledged and included in some list or not rather than discussing the ethical issues at hand.
    I would definitely agree with you when you say that the response to Ketchum fell far, far short, given the seriousness of the issue for PR professionals if by that you mean from the broad PR profession, not individual PR folk who blog – all of whom in your lists did contribute some very good thinking.
    Yet what real difference will a bunch of concerned individuals make on such an issue? In my view, this is a matter for the representatives of the profession to take a stand on the issue, on behalf of the profession as a whole, just as I said in a comment in your original post. But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if nothing comes of Ketchum/Armstrong from the overall profession point of view in this regard. Enough time’s gone by now for, say, PRSA or IABC to provide some meaningful commentary on the matter, and for any PR agency other than Edelman to state any point of view. Unless I’ve missed some recent reporting, such groups have been wholly silent.
    Hence what I say in this post – there is plenty individuals can do on their own account.

  3. My points are:
    1. PR is legitimate, natural etc it is not inherently bad (something that I think few critics, including the cluetrainers, accept)
    2. PR will embrace blogging and will thrive because PR is about the dissemination of ideas, information etc and the generation of dialogue (that doesn’t mean that everyone in PR behaves that way but the good people do)
    3. If you build a story on certain facts and those facts turn out to be largely or significantly false then you have to withdraw or revise the story (this is good journalism, good pr, good blogging)
    4. Jay, criticism is not ‘pathetic’ and its not ‘spin’ its just criticism. There are different viewpoints in every debate.
    5. I support strong legal sanctions to counter deception in PR, we should coalesce around that and aim for positive outcomes from this debate.

  4. What I would take from your points, Trevor, is that, at the end of the day, you just press on doing your own ‘good’ PR for your employer or your clients and don’t be unduly alarmed about Ketchum/Armstrong-type events.
    Such events produce ripples in the pond, get a lot of talk, and then die down until the next one comes along and repeats the ripple effect.
    This reinforces the point I made in this post about individual actions, even though the profession itself will remain a dirty one in the eyes of many.
    Or am am I just in a rather cynical mood today?

  5. “don’t be unduly alarmed about Ketchum/Armstrong-type events.”
    Neville – I want to see people who commit fraud in the name of PR put in gaol (jail), not alarmed just pissed off and vengeful
    “Criticism is not pathetic. We agree!”
    Jay – that’s spin buddy

  6. I would also note that several of us have been “asking questions about their professional associations” well before Jay’s post triggered anything.

  7. Thanks, Thomas. I left a little comment to your post 😉
    Professionalism is the key word. As Shel notes in his comment, some people are asking what is the position of our professional associations. While grassroots programmes are well and good, as you say in your own post, I do believe that any meaningful impact will come only when one of the professional associations (PRSA, IABC, etc) stands up and speaks.
    No sign of that, though.

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