Exposing PR's weaknesses

I’m concerned about public relations. In the way that the Texas mother who created the Ignore No More app was concerned by her son ignoring her mobile phone calls.  PR – why are you ignoring all the good advice that’s around you?

Even more concerning, why are PR practitioners ignorant of the weakness of a discipline that relies on anecdote, criticism and personal opinion, rather than robust evidence, substantiated thinking and considered arguments?

We see this almost everywhere that PR is discussed online (and often in print too). Bloggers and commentators with opinions – often asserted with no underpinning to justify the position taken. They are right and everyone else is wrong. No allowance made for nuance, reflection, debate or changing one’s mind. Ironically this reflects a positivist view of the world, whilst PR practitioners commonly admit they are poor at maths or science.

Nowhere is this more apparent than looking at evaluation. I’m not just concerned but in despair when I hear practitioners have rebranded the discredited AVE measure as something called PR Value! Why do we cling to the bogus and fake when there are perfectly good ways of assessing our work, its impact and outcomes? Why do we blame others for our failure to persuade management of the real value of public relations?

I’m concerned that PR as a field is generally unaware of – and uninterested in –  technological developments as discussed in Catherine Arrow’s Op-Ed (Why public relations must wake up to wearables).  But its not just futurology where we are weak. Few practitioners even know how to code with HTML (let alone anything more sophisticated) or have a working knowledge of design packages, macros or to be honest, how to use the full capabilities of word-processing or presentation software.

Indeed, I’m concerned that where PR practitioners have rebranded themselves as Communicators working in Communication(s) functions, they generally mean they like to write (or maybe, only maybe, that they are good at this). Are they familiar with conceptual frameworks that help improve communications? Do they understand semiotics? Or indeed, are they engaged with audio, imagery or videography to any great extent?

Others now describe themselves as storytellers, content curators or narrators. But have they looked at the rich fields of knowledge and practice that are routed in such craft skills? Likewise, I’m concerned by those who say PR is marketing, yet display little understanding of the underpinnings of either domain.

I’m concerned by the fact that women have dominated the PR occupation for several decades, yet still bemoan that men are dominating at senior level. Is this really something that we cannot solve? And what about diversity and other issues affecting our own field? How can we counsel others if we cannot fix ourselves?

Another concern I have is the lack of career strategies in PR. I’m concerned that any f*cker can be a PR person – as a LinkedIn post by Bournemouth University PR graduate, Lauren East notes.  Well, I’m most concerned that others think anyone can work in PR. Not that I oppose an open door policy, but the implication that once in position, all PR practitioners do is spin around in their fancy office chairs.

Look at any job site recruiting PR practitioners at any level. How many stipulate qualifications or detailed competencies? Most seem to focus on personality based assets – continuing to reflect the ‘matching’ model of careers that was popular at the start of the 20th century. Yet, the industry maintains it is a profession.

All these ideas around the craft skills, management positions and professional status miss how the world of work is changing – which is evident in the careers literature and studies.

When looking at PR practice, the ability to think – and justify recommendations on the basis of rational and logical arguments would appear to be a major weakness based on a number of current examples. Doesn’t this concern you?

The world’s largest PR firm has come under fire in the past few weeks on two main fronts. First, along with other British-based PR consultancies, it was questioned by the Guardian newspaper about whether it would rule out working with climate change deniers. Although Richard Edelman did eventually make a formal statement on the issue (that it would “not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change“), its position regarding those who take a less equivocal stance has been questioned.

The second issue relates to a blog post write by Lisa Kovitz on the Edelman Global Practices site following the death of Robin Williams. Carpe Diem made an argument that PR should take advantage of such high profile news situations to advise clients on how to join the conversation. Criticism by Gawker (among others) led to a ‘pseudo’ apology (as defined by Lazare 2004).

My point is not to criticise Edelman, but critique the weakness in thinking that seems evident in many of the views expressed in its posts and responses.  Indeed, I’m surprised that the firm is responding to the fall out from these issue by saying it is reviewing its policies and procedures to address “issues, reputation and management”.  I’ll ignore that this reads like an ‘off the shelf’ damage limitation action, but just say I’m concerned that the cobbler’s children weren’t already wearing such shoes.

I’m also concerned by those who have laid into Edelman’s faux pas. Too many PR practitioners appear to offer knee-jerk reactions or set themselves up as moral authorities – based on little more than their own opinion. Among those calling the Kovitz post an error in judgement was Stephanie Cegielski, Vice President, Public Relations for Public Relations Society of America who argued “Tragedy is not a PR opportunity” in a long post which itself has been accused of being exploitative (i.e. itself pushing a PRSA agenda).

Dan Bryant (in a Guardian post) noted other creative industries don’t even get asked their position on climate change. However, if public relations is positioned as being able to counsel management (in-house or clients) on making decisions in relation to controversial or high profile issues, we ought to be able to rationalise and justify our recommendations. This means more than simply making statements based on personal experience, intuition, anecdotal evidence,  or ‘because I say so’ viewpoints.

I’m also concerned that the consequences for PR practitioners of taking a position that is publicly vilified are personal and often immediate e.g. being fired or losing any good reputation they may have had.  This is the old crisis management approach that seeks distance from a problem – they no longer work here, we don’t do that now, etc etc. Brush it under the carpet, or present the miscreant as ‘other’, not reflective of ‘good’ practitioners who abide by the codes set by professional bodies or their employers.

This is yet more evidence of how PR fails to connect with the complexity of decision making in the modern world. When we rely on our own viewpoint, we tend to come up with immediate solutions rather than gaining any depth of understanding of actual causes. Also then as an occupation, we never seem to get a step closer to an ethical future for PR.

I’m also concerned about the advice that may be being given by PR practitioners in many global and more local current affairs. It isn’t always clear from the outside what the role of PR is in certain cases, and I’m loathe to criticise without knowing more. But I do have questions.

We’ve all seen the rhetoric, propaganda, attempts to persuade or enact dialogue in relation to conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine. Where are PR practitioners involved in such circumstances and are they advocating a strategy, simply acting as paid spokespeople or giving advice that is being ignored? The situation in the US town of Ferguson with last week’s police reaction (from an overly military style presence to arresting media and clamping down on social media) and change in strategy similarly raises questions about PR thinking. Where we read of differences in opinion over decisions to release the policeman’s name, video images of the victim and other details of the case, was the input of PR sought in any of the involved organisations?

When South Yorkshire Police responded to a question by the BBC about an investigation into the singer Cliff Richard, was the PR function involved in deciding to “work with” the broadcaster? Did the BBC’s own PR function know about this situation in advance and offer a view on how to engage with the police authority? Should we presume that the South Yorkshire police force’s PR function was involved in complaining about the BBC’s actions once public criticism over the initial decision arose? Both organisations seem to have made a pig’s ear of this – so what was the PR thinking during or subsequently?

In each of these – and many more – situations, there’s plenty of comment about the approaches that are being taken. In some cases, this includes criticism of an organisation’s public relations. But we really do need to know more about the thinking involved – or even better, how the field can help guide thinking of practitioners facing such situations on the basis of robust evidence and frames of reference.

Einstein is said to have argued the value of higher education is “the training of the mind to think” rather than the study of facts which can be learned from textbooks. As an educator in public relations, I support Einstein’s view in terms of believing my role is to help my students train their minds to think – in as many different ways as possible.

One case that has been interesting in doing this recently is the discussion around the Open Carry movement in the US. It is helpful as for most Brits, we don’t understand why anyone would wish to openly carry an assault weapon. So we can apply Covey’s 5th habit: Seek first to understand. We have looked in particular at the reasoning proposed by philosophy Professor Jack Russell Weinstein regarding how bystanders should react.

In conclusion, my concerns about PR are generally based in a weakness of thinking that is evident in reactions and responses to high profile cases, and may be found in our own recommendations and behaviour in practice.

Surely we should be training our minds to think – and perhaps philosophical understanding is as good a place to start as any. And then, we can recommend and take action to address our weaknesses so that so many of PR’s apparent ongoing issues can be resolved instead of simply defining us.

Picture: The world’s Grumpiest Cat

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37 Replies to “Exposing PR's weaknesses

  1. Well, one certainly cannot be a PR/Comms “vegetarian” here on THIS post. It’s all Meat all the time.


    I wonder whether the current (American) tendency to prefer snacking to meals (continuing the “food” theme…) results in the shortcut/top layer/quick hit/no think behaviors outlined here. Once upon a time, RACE was a useful planning acronym – Research, Action Planning, Communication, Evaluation. Half of the activity here was pretty serious, behind the scenes stuff – the “doing” was really just 1/4, and the remaining 1/4 was setting out the plan, implying objectives, current state analysis, etc. So, maybe it’s 3/4 of the effort is getting ready to do or examining how effectively we did.

    That flies in the face of the current vogue, where speed is everything and a redo is just as good as making a good first decision. Add to the mix the need for leverage (in an agency setting), where you minimize partner and senior practitioner time in favor of lower cost beasties… You have to bill those hours, kids. Better bill them at lower cost to the firm!

    But back to the food metaphor – research is a meal, lots of protein and veg and healthy starch – snacks are pretty, fun, but rather empty, and they don’t help you be healthy, quite the reverse, actually.

    Maybe we Yank PRs are getting fat-headed?

    1. Very funny – what’s the beef with vegetarians? Can’t we be robust thinkers too? LOL! Interestingly I was at a meeting the other day having an intellectual conversation with a researcher and mentioned I have a degree in psychology; he said, me too! Then he said, you’re left handed – so am I. And we finally discovered both vegetarians. Everyone else in the room just rolled their eyes…

      Anyway, love the analogy of food. Judy did something similar (not surprisingly) with one of her Byte posts if I recall correctly.

      But seriously I think you are right that we’ve got into a world of the thinking equivalent of fast food – so no wonder our cognitive competencies are ill-digested, bloated and flatulent!

      1. The last thing the PR world needs is more flatulence! The critical need is THOUGHT. And that seems in rather short supply at the moment.

        Makes me into the grumpy old PR guy, shaking his fist…


  2. Heather, your grumpy-cat rant covers so many areas, making it hard to comment succinctly on all of it. As a result, I’m going to focus my comment on the area of current greatest interest to me: who tends to opine online and why?

    Unless one is an official spokesperson for the rare organization that encourages wide-ranging commentary of a general nature (note this does not mean criticizing competitors and only rarely public figures, such as government officials) on properties other than the company’s “owned” or mainstream/industry/online (official) media, I find that most of the opinions tend to be offered up by boutique agencies (i.e., 25 staff or fewer)—in particular, by the CEO—and consultants.

    And, to be fair, I also note that this group of “active online” agency/consultants with opinions includes the majority of individuals who have guest-posted on this blog, and the various commenters.

    For some active-online individuals, this is definitely because they care deeply about public relations and communication management best practices and research, as a way of moving the bar higher towards professionalism. But I suspect for the majority there is a much larger “commercial” aspect—not only as a marketing technique to acquire clients directly through popularity “mindshare” and SEO, but also to be seen as a “thought leader.” Of course the concept of thought leadership has very much been dumbed-down in this online space, as it tends to be transitory and often based on shiny new tools and tactics, hardly life-changing or permanent.

    That’s why we get (what I hope will be brief) explosions of “new” concepts in PR and marketing, such as public relations via online communities and the power of “employee advocacy.” And while such things are riding high in the topics docket of “conversations” and pronouncements, I’m sure a handful of consultants do see a surge in new clients–“persuading” those company leaders who are thrilled to think that this is all that it will take to drive sales: consumer online communities or employee advocates as marketing tools.

    And yet, and yet…there may be a few cherry-picked case studies to “prove” any given shiny concept, written up in an ebook that a related vendor company finances…but the long-term implications, researched and measured, are not there. And, in many cases they won’t ever be, because the “thought leaders” will have exhausted this service-offering potential, not really have made a difference for the majority of his or her clients and/or moved on to some other concept or toy to base their current “thought leadership” practice upon.

    For all of the criticism of Edelman—in particular the Carpe Diem blog post—it’s interesting how few of those “opining” admit or recognize how much they’ve come to rely upon the annual Edelman Trust Barometer “research” for their own focus and goals moving forward related to reputation and trust. (Or in the case of academics, being invited to a top-notch annual symposium, all expenses paid, to hear keynotes and case studies primarily presented by in-house senior practitioners.)

    Instead there is all of this self-righteous declaration from the agency CEO about her or his firm’s own “values” and “ethics.” Where is the agency’s comparable document or academic symposium, to measure the public pulse on what is involved in trust and reputation? Or a consensus document like the Global Alliance’s Melbourne Mandate “call to action” about what is involved in a communicative organization? (I know that you’ve referenced its Professional Development Wheel/Framework in another comment here, Heather. A reminder that it was authored by our “wearables” correspondent Catherine Arrow.)

    A company blog with frequent, free-access posts is hardly comparable in terms of an “investment” or a permanent resource.

    Of course it is so much easier to be a blogging SAYer than a research DOer… And that I believe is one of the great weaknesses of the current-day PR/marketing practitioner, particularly as “defined” by agencies/consultancies.

    1. I’ve been thinking about your comment all day Judy. For me, what’s important about those who comment online, especially PR bloggers or other organisations, is that they should be offering something of real value. I believe that this comes in the form of something robust (I’ll avoid meaty as per below discussion!). So Edelman does offer the Trust Barometer and whilst it is also a differentiator and marketing device, it is of value to others. Sites like the Institute for Public Relations, the open access PRaxis/PRISM journal, Global Alliance and others also offer substance. Some professional bodies seem to increasingly offer fluff and puff (candyfloss) that may be appealing to those in PR for offering easy solutions (guides, checklists etc) but doesn’t really address fundamental issues or make a lasting difference. But all well and good to an extent.

      If we look at a top PR blog list such as Inkybee (http://www.inkybee.com/top-60-pr-blogs/) we can see the mezze (or mezethes as I believe the Greek term is) that is out there. And as I know you have argued, it is relevance on these lists that should be credited more than visibility for a start (Lyndon’s empty vessels). Also genuine engagement is a good thing I would think. But do these algorithms simply pick up fatuous ‘aren’t you wonderful’ comments as engagement? Where is the value in that for anyone else in PR – and where can our students (and young/mature practitioners) be sure of the validity and veracity of what they discover as supposed advice?

      Of course there can be sites of value on such lists including some mentioned above plus my own, PR Academy and this one 😉 but what any reader needs is that vital critical perspective when checking out any source, rather than believing what the popular girl says just because she’s well popular!

      Where I feel that we have the most concern is with the type of blogger who is simply opinionated based on little more than their own viewpoint and experiences. There is no evidence, depth or attempt to question what they believe.

      The ones that I really value are often not on such lists, not known to me, but I am so impressed by the thinking that is evident or the quality of debate/argument or in the case of FIR for example (which I don’t often hear to be honest) is that they go direct to sources and get an inside view.

      As I said at the beginning of the post – there is good stuff out there if people just apply a bit of their own evaluation and willingness to learn and be challenged (and challenge back).

      1. I concur with everything you said, Heather (how unusual)! 🙂

        In addition to The Inky Bee list, it was very nice to be added (recently) to Shawn Paul Wood’s (PRNewser) “The 25 (Other) PR Blogs You Should Bookmark Today” list, despite being described as a “big box store” blog (whereas I see us as an exclusive, global boutique that SPECIALIZES most definitely in the distinct product/service of PR….). And I should also point out the (sort of) sad observation: we appear to be the only non-USA blog on Wood’s list. [Update/correction: In total there are four blogs that are not based in the USA. Two are based in Canada–one helmed by a Permanent Resident from Scotland–the third is Media Culpa from Sweden]

        Regarding your: “But do these algorithms simply pick up fatuous ‘aren’t you wonderful’ comments as engagement?” observation, recently one of the blogs very high on both of the above-mentioned lists did a post about the agency’s blog posts that had received the most comments–they were in the hundreds. On average any given post gets three-figures or more comments.

        And yet. And yet. If you look at the typical post on this blog, you will discover:

        1. Probably half of the comments are made by the agency’s own staff.
        2. Many of them are of the “kibbitzing around” variety (very short, often with a HA! or some other expressive word of emoticon)–a back-and-forth of fun insults.
        3. Several of the so-called comments are actually from Twitter or FB (because this particular blog uses one of those commenting platforms that pulls third-platform posts into the blog post proper’s comments section).

        So…when The Inky Bee’s algorithm spider is crawling around, is it distinguishing any of these things in the “true engagement” from an OUTSIDE stakeholders fashion? I think not.

        I’ll take 35 meaty eggplant comments on PRC any day (many, many of which could be guest posts here in their own right) over the kind of cliquey commentary that passes for engagement on a lot of other (so-called) “PR” blogs.

  3. Well, that’s as comprehensive a list of grumbles about PR as I’ve ever seen in one blog. Writing the point-by-point “so here’s what we should do to solve these problems” part is going to be quite something. I wish you all the best and look forward to it.

    1. Nigel – a large part of my frustrations leading to this post is that there are already lots of good things going on but many PR practitioners seem not to wish to engage with these in terms of self-improvement and keeping up to date with competency requirements.

      With regard to the vilification of others and reliance on anecdote rather than good, insightful case studies, I wrote a post about this with practical suggestions last November (with reference particularly to crisis situations): http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2013/11/getting-serious-about-pr-crisis-case-studies/

      I’m researching PR career strategies for my PhD and would hope to be able to offer some concrete suggestions on reconceptualising work and careers that will help practitioners from that. As I’m studying part-time, this is a long term project for me though.

      Finally, my real cri de coeur is fairly simple if PR practitioners are listening. Please value thinking and adopt Einstein’s approach to using education (in all its forms) to train the mind. Being more aware of why you are doing things, and how to present more considered work would be a small step for PR practitioners, but could be a giant leap for public relations.

  4. This is so much rich, complex food for thought.. taking me a while to digest. Ok.. clearly I need a snack as my hunger is getting to me. To the post:

    There’s something about plurality juxtaposed to how we now comment and argue a position; see also Sean’s comments. So you have knee jerk reactions and wagons circled and all manner of finger pointing. You can have opinions, but everyone seems to confuse those with ‘facts’ – and leaves no room for anyone else’s. Someone like me gets labeled a turncoat or fence sitter b/c I try to see all the different sides, b/c I can accept that it’s not necessarily right vs. wrong, ‘it depends’ is a valid response.

    To the ‘communications functions’ I mistakenly truncate PR as that, if only for simplicity. But really, it’s the function part, that’s the contextual elements those outside the industry can ‘get.’ And by the by, one of my many hats is design – full w/ tech-fu on Adobe CS, some HTML/CSS, PowerPoint and video. Then there’s a whole host of other things we do – i.e. done a fair bit of meeting planning in my day – that end of the day, it all comes back to communications and PR.

    To the anyone can do it.. think that’s the drivel that oversimplifies, understates, completely muddles the ground of what PR can do, the value it really brings to a company on the whole. See Kevin’s comments about how execs want to shove messages down a funnel towards employees, then scratch their heads when it doesn’t work. See also the comments about the recent news jack fails. This kind of thing will always be subjective; yes it’s wise to know the trends, to have a plan and be prepared. Part of that prep has to be getting ready for the blowback, that you’re jumping onto a trend for your own purpose — which to be fair you are. See your reply to Michael, about people calling it PR and doing it badly, making mistakes most of us wouldn’t consider. (Reminds me of a post I read, SM lies agencies tell and I was like.. these are all obvious b.s., people fall for this?)

    My concerns in PR (and business) really, goes back to plurality or rather, that society is becoming less accepting, less tolerant of any POV. Anything, everything is a deal breaker. So doing good work doesn’t matter, having an engaged analytical mind makes no difference? if you’re opinions are unpopular or someone takes offense you’re on IG w/ alcohol in hand or maybe once made one ill-humor tweet.. that’s a pink slip? IDK we seem to be judging a lot, but not really thinking. I fear though that few are having this conversation; most in business I know there’s only one thing top of mind: how do we make more money? FWIW.

    1. Davina – thanks for the comment. I agree it is increasingly worrying that so many PR practitioners have fixed views and reflect intolerance of others who may differ. I believe that having an open mind and being able to understand others is a vital aspect of PR. You also raise a good point about how many in PR are primarily focused on making money regardless of what may be in the best interests of the client or the wider public. Sigh!

  5. Heather,

    Great piece. These are exactly the issues that I wanted to tackle when I founded my company. They damage our reputation and devalue what we do.

    Best wishes, Lyndon

    1. Thanks – there are a lot of people who are addressing such issues which is good to see, but sadly those who make the most noise (empty vessels?) tend to get a higher profile at least online.

      1. The question is how can we tackle the empty vessels. The industry as a whole has done a great job at commoditizing what we do to the point customers don’t understand the value of what we do and want to pay even less for it.

        Unless we start to redress the situation – and quickly – our industry will die.

        1. It is tough isn’t it Lyndon, as can one really fill up an empty vessel if it doesn’t want to be filled? I fear that many of the empty vessels are more like sieves. But there are plenty of people who don’t know better, or sadly our graduates who do but then are told real world is different to academia. But I’m hearing more and more stories of graduates who rebel from poor practice and leave or set up on their own. So I have some hope for the future, albeit often a slim one1

          1. I agree that the empty vessels are, in most cases, beyond help.

            They don’t want to be filled and won’t be moved from their opinion [to Davina’s point – many are only interested in their opinion] but there are organizations that are desperate for an alternative to the fare that most practitioners serve up.

            I smile every time I see somebody talking about PR and describe publicity. Imagine if this happened amongst pilots… would you get on a plane if the professionals couldn’t agree on a definition? We’re supposed to be about effective communication yet we can’t, as an industry, even agree on a single definition of what we do or the value it delivers.

            I’m seeing an increasing number of graduates doing their own thing too – which reinforces the points you make in your original piece. It is also a damning reflection on the mainstream industry.

          2. (Not sure where this will appear as run out of thread here – but it is a reply to Lyndon’s comment).

            Lyndon – I appreciate what you are saying about definitions, but I honestly can’t get that hung up on an exact statement of what we do as an industry. I think that PR is one of those amorphous things that even if you and I agreed a definition, it wouldn’t please everyone and we end up in the same place for another century with something vague or only appealing to a few if too specific. My own belief is that ‘PR is what PR does’ and so I am happy to work with my clients, students and others to show the value that I believe solid PR can and does deliver. This may sometimes include publicity but not simply for its own sake and not as the entire menu.

            My analogy is to consider something like a dog – it comes in many shapes and sizes but when we see a dog, we know what it is. Trying to put it into words to cover all the varieties (even in my house there’s a Rhodesian Ridgeback and a Jackahuaua) is probably impossible, but most people surely recognise a dog. Can we get them to recognise good PR in the same way?

  6. Speaking from a news guy’s point of view, I’ll tell you one thing wrong with the PR firms I deal with: everything is becoming a long-winded ordeal. This, at a time when everybody knows that the shrinking pool of journalists find themselves increasingly busy, under deadline, and multi-tasking.

    I am amazed at the number of meetings and especially conference calls that y’all want to suck me into.

    I am amazed at how in love y’all are with talking about the process; as opposed to just doing the fucking process.

    I am dismayed by some of the incredibly over-packaged and overly pissed-on pitches I get for things I couldn’t possibly cover. Especially from some of the Big Firms – and you know who you are.

    Content Creation, Curation, … whatever… is not a new thing. It’s what we’ve been doing in news for, like, a really long time. Slapping a #hashtag on something doesn’t make it creative.

    You should be concerned with how often a PR contact is not familiar with their client’s product, hasn’t shopped in the client’s stores, or cannot explain the underlying technology. And you should be horrified by how often a PR professional does not read or view a given journalist’s work. You should feel responsible if you are one of the executives not giving their people the time – and mandate – to read in. The young people in PR are by-and-large great; sometimes it seems like any f*cker can be a PR manager.

    To be fair, virtually the same criticisms can be leveled at the world of news. So wouldn’t the smart – and nimble – strategy be to take advantage of the situation?

    Oh and by the way, Lisa Kovitz at Edelman is one of the best PR pro’s you’d ever want to work with.

    1. Michael – thanks for your view. I don’t understand why anyone working in media relations would want to waste a journalist’s time in meetings or suck them into a long-winded process that doesn’t seem to be about getting the job done.. Strikes me that a lot of what you describe is not appropriate planning but billing hours and coming up with daft ideas rather than focusing on what is a story that delivers for media, public and client. So not what I’d describe as effective media relations (let alone public relations).

      So I’d argue that those doing the above aren’t showing any ability to understand what is effective or use any brain cells at all. And, I’m with you entirely over how young PR practitioners are often better than those who claim to manage them.

      I fail to see how anyone working in PR should be talking with journalists without a really strong understanding of their subject or what that journalist covers. Anything less is bad cold calling. My specialist sector is automotive and that means knowing about the industry, its issues, your own products (and those of competitors), plus a breadth and depth of the broader context – whether you work in-house (as the majority in the sector do) or for a consultancy.

      We need to be petrolheads with our specialist media, but know what would be of interest about automotive when talking with others who aren’t car nuts. The young practitioners who work in this sector (at least in the UK where I’m based) are not only given time and experiences on the job to ensure they aren’t wasting a journalist’s time, but as an industry, we run workshops and opportunities for them to learn best practice.

      Finally, as I said in my post, I wouldn’t criticise anyone in the eye of a media/PR storm without understanding their inside perspective and I don’t know Lisa Kovitz at Edelman personally nor her capabilities to work with journalists.

      Responding in a nimble manner to topical issues may well be important (depending on the situation) and ensuring that your client/employer is able to make best use of such situations is certainly part our job. I don’t believe that I said otherwise in my post.

      There’s a lot to be concerned about with PR (and the current state of news media) – from the detail of the tactics employed through to the many points that I raised. I don’t think there’s anything that you’ve raised that I wouldn’t see as basics of media relations that we’ve known about for decades. What frustrates and concerns me is how such things continue. As my opening paragraph suggested – too many PR practitioners don’t seem to be listening or learning to the good advice that’s around us.

      1. Heather – I so agree with you on this. One of my pet peeves is the sight of ‘fellow’ PRs keen to get into the media and comment to journalists about how an issue should be managed, without a clue about that inside perspective. From my own experience I know only too well that what a situation looks like from the outside so often is very much an incomplete partial view of the real picture. As always, a great post, Heather.

        1. Thank you. Such public criticism seems very unprofessional to me and more about self-promotion rather than seeking to truly improve our understanding of PR in high profile situations.

  7. I was shocked recently by the blatantly unfair firing of Mark Hass. The circumstances surrounding it reminded me – tho I don’t pretend to suggest that what follows should be taken too literally – of the McCarthy era and an essay much later about it by Arthur Miller:

    “Are you now or were you ever…? The McCarthy era’s anti-communist trials destroyed lives and friendships. Arthur Miller describes the paranoia that swept America – and the moment his then wife Marilyn Monroe became a bargaining chip in his own prosecution”


    You’d have thought we PR pros of all people would be capable of withstanding the heat with more dignity, more nerve and more respect for ourselves (including for Hass who deserved better).

    It’s worrying times for our industry when things get so hysterical and so out of control.

    1. Paul – thank you for your comment and the link to Miller’s well written reflection. I watched the cheesy, The Way we Were (Redford + Streisand) the other week which touched on the McCarthy era as the screenplay had been written by Arthur Laurents who drew on his own experiences.

      Reading the Miller article, I stopped on this phrase: “to be alive to the dilemmas of the day”. I’d love to believe that this is what we are as PR practitioners rather than being the ones creating all the hysteria and fuelling fires. Unfortunately I think that not only can we not withstand the heat as you say with dignity, nerve and respect, but we are frequently turning the dial to increase the flames often simply for the sake of getting the fire to spread. Sad…

  8. Great article Heather and hits a points which I’ve been questioning lately. How the merging of internal communications and PR seem to have resulted in all discernible good practices and methods being thrown out of the window in favor of the latest content curation tool and desire to drive up ‘engaged’ followers. I do keep questioning what the role of each discipline is, what each is actually trying to achieve and how we’re measuring whether what we’re doing is working. The answer seems to be vague on all counts.

    Leadership strives for engaged employees but when asked, can’t actually define what that means. And if I find a good definition from leadership, it reflects a dutiful and committed employee, not necessarily what I’d consider an ‘engaged’ employee. There is definitely room for definition in this space.. and a thirst among some for discussion as to intent, purpose, metrics and method.

    This piece starts that discussion… but can we all take a break from Buffering and hootsuiting to do so?

  9. Well said Heather, good to see such a well constructed and honest review of PR practice.

    I also despair at some attitudes within my specialism, internal communication. I came across some advice to practitioners recently that the employee ‘engagement’ word was too tricky and should be avoided. This is when recent research shows that 70% of business leaders in the UK think that engagement is ‘critical’, as cited in the Engage for Success Nailing the Evidence Report: http://www.engageforsuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/The-Evidence.pdf

    That’s the spirit, keep it simple, just fire loads of messages at internal audiences (that is fellow employees to you and me) down the channels, job done. Cue lots of scratching of heads when the poor employee engagement survey results come out (again).

    Ultimately, it comes down to organisations having a better understanding of what good value PR and internal communication looks like. CEOs and senior managers could become more intelligent buyers of services and employers of PR people. Unfortunately, they don’t always know what good is. Why should they, PR is rarely mentioned in Business Studies degrees or MBAs?


    1. Kevin – this made me laugh with the idea that a concept is ‘tricky’ and so should be avoided.

      I’ve been looking at Vygotsky’s model of the zone of proximal development recently – which is considering how we gradually become able to do things that initially we cannot. Vygotsky believed education is about experiences within the proximal zone where we need guidance in order to advance our learning and skills.

      One of the problems with much modern(its) education is that it has become so prescriptive and directive that perhaps people aren’t prepared or even able to struggle through the phase of finding things difficult. Learners are increasingly being given precise details of learning outcomes to specific marking criteria, formative and summative feedback and so on. Although these can be useful, they also remove independence and ‘working it out’ for yourself.

      I do agree that we need to ensure CEOs and senior leaders are more familiar with a high standard of PR/IC. It would certainly be helpful to be considered in relevant management courses – and also for PR thinking and theory to be more evident in literature that is outside our own. I was looking at some work on crisis management the other day which was HR related and there was no mention at all of IC or PR within this. It had a bibliography with not one text that we’d recognise.

      1. Yes, I must admit I chuckled when I read the advice. It only serves to undermine the credibility of practice when people bury their head in the sand and hope that a new, tricky, concept goes away so they can get back to basic message-audience work that, by the way, is based on minimal (if any) research.

        Vygotsky certainly resonates with me. Taking baby steps, and confronting a fear of numbers, I have this past year worked slowly and with good support to understand how to use correlations and multiple regression analysis for communication research. The rewards have been incredible, both personally and for the way that I think practice can be improved.

        Of course, it is more comfortable to do what has always been done. But then you just get what you’ve always got, which in the case of internal communication practice is often low levels of employee engagement.

        Things can be different if we dare to embrace complexity.

    2. “…just fire loads of messages at internal audiences”. Old school IC encapsulated in the desperate-sounding acronym: ‘SOS’ (send stuff out) rather than the tranquil-sounding acronym ‘OASIS’ (objective, audience, strategy, implementation and ‘sustainment’).

  10. Thanks Heather for a thought provoking though depressing post on the state of the profession. Thought provoking because we all look around us and observe what you are writing about. Depressing because it is so true that it smacks us right in the face — t he enemy is us.

    Unfortunately I can’t envision an Ignore No More App for the PR profession where an irate PRSA, Global Alliance can disable an errant practitioner’s right to communicate.

    Lack of sanctions against errant practitioners maybe the root cause of the depressing state of affairs. Guess this isToni’s lament in the last paragraph of his post above.

    1. Don – thanks for the idea of a PR Ignore No More app – although I’m not sure I’d put control of this into the hands of the professional bodies (indeed, we might need to apply it to them fairly often!).

      I’ve never been a big fan of licensing and sanctions in PR – possibly again because of the nature of those who may seek to enforce such approaches has never impressed me that much.

      I tend to feel frustrated (maybe depressed a bit) that there is such little willingness to treat PR as a proper career rather than something that only seems easy and fun to do. Picking up on Toni’s maturation point and Sean’s feeling of a lack of patience, it seems as if PR is currently in its toddler phase but seems to enjoy being infantalised rather than growing up at all.

  11. There is no way this post can be interpreted as the nth article that digresses from reality and blames others for our current professional weakness in the publlic discourse.

    To the contrary, its arguments acknowledge how the profession has never been attributed such relevance in an increasing number of mostly justifiable public criticisms and discussions,

    Today’s increasing focus on our profession’s impact on social, political, economic, and managerial public discourse reveals we are in a transition from a nincompoopish, fragile ignorance and Pavlovian knee-jerk reaction to the complexities in which we operate…. to a more mature and aware need that civil society and organizations around the world need critical thinkers and doers capable of suggesting and/or implementing different and diverse solutions to demonstrably increase their value to both..

    What we need to do now is accelerate this transition and deny any intellectual, cultural and professionall dignity to those stupid, filthy and often harmful and counterprodcutive things we do that raise and justify Heather’s concerns.

    thank you. l

    1. Toni – love the word nincompoopish! I also support the maturation call and ensuring that critical thinking and doing needs to be our measure rather than continuing, the poor practices that result in the endless Groundhog Day criticisms of PR practitioners.

      I decided to go back and look at Jean Valin’s post at PR Conversations in August 2013 (http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2013/08/the-melbourne-mandate-a-professional-beacon-for-pr/) which included a link to a Professional Development Framework. It is interesting that critical and other forms of thinking are implied, but not specifically drawn out here. Indeed, a lot of the things we talk about are here but I wonder if this has been developed further to help inform what we actually need to be able to deliver a high performance in such areas?

  12. Heather, as always, an excellent post filled with good thinking, which I agree is sadly in short supply in PR and in almost every other discipline. My two cents is that the desire to act and act quickly is getting in the way of thinking. We all have heard the stats that indicate the pace of the world has quickened, leaving us with insufficient time to fit in everything that’s necessary. I’d expand that to say that we’ve lost our time to explore, to sample, to generate alternatives; we’ve lost empathy for people who disagree with us and seem incapable of even a cursory examination of their points of view.

    One reason why measurement continues to be such a bete noire is that we won’t seriously consider ways of making it work. We look for a quick and easy solution to a problem that requires nuanced understanding and a willingness to examine different paths to the answer. It leads to a reductionist view of our strategy and tactics, a facile and oversimplified (and mainly erroneous) set of conclusions.

    We have no patience, and neither do executives, the media, our customers and our shareholders.

    Even among those who are exceptional writers, there’s no time to polish, little self-editing and hardly any interest in revisiting past conclusions. We don’t do research, relying instead on our instincts, comfortable in the knowledge that no one will remember what we said yesterday. Leaders in business and politics reinforce these behaviors, modeling them for others, which justifies continuing the same acts.

    It’s a little depressing!

    1. Sean – thanks for your comments. There definitely is a quick and easy attitude around at present – interesting to speculate how much the ‘realtime’ information environment plays into this. Patience, attention span and considered work plus lots of other valuable aspects that may reflect better quality are getting squashed in the rush to do it NOW!

      It is depressing but perhaps we’re just in a swing of the pendulum stage and things will move back to a more balanced perspective when there becomes better realisation that we are missing so much with the fast approach (as with fast food etc).

  13. Thanks for the comment Natalie. I definitely do agree that sleeping on something, stepping away, reflecting, getting a second opinion, or just thinking about what you’re about to say is good advice. I’ve often argued against the social media mantra that speed of response is all.

    Also given the criticism of Edelman over Carpe Diem, I was surprised to see a piece by a writer on the New York Times’ media desk effectively saying that for the editor of People magazine the deaths of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall were a ‘dream come true’ and should be turned into profit. Judged as a piece of journalism by a staffer of a credible publication, and noting that Jess Cagle (People’s editor) did not say this himself, it is potentially more tasteless than the Edelman blog.

    See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/18/business/media/childhood-passion-for-celebrity-still-drives-the-editor-of-people-magazine-jess-cagle.html?_r=0

  14. Heather ,

    You raise important concerns that warrant discussion across the profession. Your post makes me wish all the more for agreed-upon practice standards, supported not only by our professional associations but by employers. Here’s hoping the Global Alliance will bring our professional associations a viable option for consideration in the coming months.

    Much has been written about the Edelman Carpe Diem event so I apologize in advance if I am about to repeat opinion seen elsewhere.

    The Edelman company has made significant contributions to the global understanding of the role of public relations in society, e.g. the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, and was not deserving of a public dressing down in my opinion. My first thought was how much better the PRSA feedback to Edelman might have been delivered with a phone call, as a conversation between CEOs, leaving the decision to Edelman on an appropriate public response.

    Do you ever stop to wonder whether the speed with which organizations can respond to public events is a dangerous thing? A good night’s sleep used to be available to public relations professionals, creating the necessary space for sober second thought.

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