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