Remembering the ‘public’ in public relations

A new survey has found that the public perceives PR pros as smart, but also duplicitous. Is that a problem that needs fixing?

For decades, the PR industry has fretted about its own public image, even as the business has evolved and agency PR has prospered. But headlines from a recent study about public perception of PR may mean we’re not there yet.

As reported in O’Dwyer’s, the outcome of the study by Texas Tech’s College of Media and Communication reads like a “good news/bad news” joke. On the bright side, compared to a decade ago, most people are more sophisticated in how they view PR people. They think we’re smart and well informed. On the other hand, they also believe we’re lying spinmeisters.

In a 2012 survey, respondents were asked to give three key words that they felt described PR. The results were then coded and compared to those in a similar 2003 survey. In the 2003 study, the most popular words associated with PR pros were “outgoing” and “friendly.” In the more recent survey, they were “liar” and “spin doctor.”

Yikes. It’s only one study, but that’s quite a metamorphosis. Some might ask, does it really matter what the public thinks of PR? After all, agencies and corporate communications professionals are hired by clients who are presumably far more knowledgeable about the craft of PR and who have a big stake in ethical practices. Public opinion is influenced by press portrayals, and in a profession as specialized as public relations, some stereotyping is inevitable. Plus, many industries are dogged by negative stereotypes or outdated perceptions (lawyers, for example).

But ignoring public perception, among other things, means we’re overlooking how perception affects future industry leaders. It’s hard to say how many, or which, rising college grads or young professionals may be discouraged from studying communications or entering the job market due to latent misconceptions about “spin” or dubious ethics. Worse, some may be attracted by those misconceptions.

The news from the Texas Tech study isn’t all bad. According to Dr. Trent Seltzer, PR department chair, the 2012 respondents seemed to have a more nuanced understanding of PR than in the previous study, and far more respondents could name specific industry practices, such as crisis management.

So, what’s an industry to do? It starts with how we conduct ourselves, to be sure, but the public image of PR is also tied to how we talk about the business and what we do. We need to be more aggressive in pushing back against stupid stereotypes and as an industry we should stigmatize bad actors. Ethical practices should be a part of every agency employee orientation, and there’s plenty of industry material out there that can help.

Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications. She has been named one of the public relations industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. A version of this story appeared on the Crenshaw Communications ImPRessions blog.


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