Has PR Become a ‘Lightning Rod of Mistrust’?

Lightning © by veggiefrog

Lord Tim Bell, head of the U.K.-based PR firm Bell Pottinger, thinks so.

That’s what he told a crowd gathered in Dubai for the recent IPRA Public Relations World Congress and reiterated in an excellent interview with The Holmes Report.

Lord Bell is asked why he feels that public relations has become a “lightning rod for mistrust.” His response is intriguing inasmuch as it provides a nuanced view of a much broader issue afflicting the profession: its reputation within business and society.

Lord Bell sees “no solution to [the] issue,” of public relations’ reputation challenges, he tells The Holmes Report’s Arun Sudhaman, believing that “We [have] become the lightning rod for that mistrust. It is something we have to learn to live with. That makes us an easy target for the media.”

Lord Bell would know. As we have pointed out in this blog and in other forums, he and his firm have a way of attracting unwanted attention. Last March, PRSA wrote in The London Evening Standard that Lord Bell’s assertion that “everyone is entitled to representation so long as it does not involve doing anything illegal” should be placed in further context — that a public relations professional’s work also must not involve doing anything unethical.

Lord Bell found himself in further hot water back in December when his firm was caught in a row over allegations of surreptitiously editing clients’ Wikipedia entries. The ensuing firestorm set off a slew of industry hand-wringing. But in a bit of good news, it also helped bring forward some much-needed dialogue between public relations professionals and Wikipedians about the practice and ethics of “paid advocates” editing client’s Wikipedia entries.

(PRSA is hosting a panel on the relationship between Wikipedia and public relations professionals at its Digital Impact Conference, April 2–3, in New York.)

Those issues aside, Lord Bell’s point that the public relations profession has become “the lightning rod for mistrust” is not without merit. But how much of that is the result of Lord Bell and others reaping what they sow, and how much is manufactured by the media and certain interest groups?

On the latter, PRSA spoke out recently to dispel a myth: that  public relations professionals are liars. In an op-ed published in The Guardian, we responded to previous commentary from Guardian media critic Roy Greenslade, in which he asked if journalists have “ever been lied to by a PR?”

In that commentary piece, PRSA Chair and CEO Gerry Corbett acknowledged that, while ethical transgressions do occur, those incidents are isolated. “They do not reflect the vast majority of the profession’s work or its value to society, the business community and, yes, the media,” he stated.

It’s not the first time (and certainly won’t be the last) that PRSA has defended public relations’ reputation. Unfortunately, it seems this issue comes up at least once a fortnight. And many times, it’s like a snowball rolling downhill, involving a kernel of truth that is  magnified into a rapidly growing media avalanche .

Still, that small kernel of truth merits examination and scrutiny.

In other words, it’s time we take public relations’ reputational and ethics issues seriously. Otherwise, Lord Bell’s assessment that public relations has become a “lightning rod of mistrust” may seem far more prescient than we’d care to admit.

A version of this post originally ran in PRSay, the blog of the Public Relations Society of America.

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  • Maybe I’m a little cynical here (or perhaps the caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet), but here’s a little suggestion for PR firms and organizations to avoid the “lightning bolt” of public mistrust…don’t do things that you *should* know will foster that mistrust.

    Representing tyrannical governments, attempting to gloss over clients’ misdeeds, creating front groups to divert attention from your organization’s missteps…any of these actions will ultimately catch the public’s attention and shine an unfavorable light in your direction.

    The PRSA Code of Ethics isn’t something that you frame and hang in your office to cover an unsightly hole in the wall. It’s a clearly expressed set of guidelines to help you identify a correct course of action.

    As I say so often in my advice to students and others: “Read and heed.”

  • Josh Gregory

    I don’t agree, at least in the field in which I work. 
    When dealing with technology, as I do, it either works or it does not.  It can be tested in any number of ways with different combinations of software, hardware. I don’t deal with opinions, nor do I have a chance to mislead someone about my company’s products. As I said, it either does what it is capable of, or it does not and I don’t promote it until engineering gets it to where it needs to be.

    Here’s the pitch, here’s the release, here’s the benchmarks, here’s what the third party guys say based on their combinations. Period.

    Maybe I’m alone in this in what I do.  Then again, I don’t do PR for those mired in politics or environments that can’t back up what they want to say with facts and figures. Sure, there are bugs and fixes down the road, but those things do not detract from the original statement that this is what the product does.Example: while working for an agency, a client wanted to refer to his products as the best in the industry.  Sure, everyone wants that.  Advertising tells us that for any number of products. My problem with it was, well, were they the best?  What R&D went into that statement? Where was the testing done on lifecycle of the product versus cost? Did the products perform better than the competition over time and in what environments, and how can we prove that?

    Fine. I’ll come out and say it.  The issue with PR in many cases is not the PR practitioner, but those around them who do not have the same ethics or desire to tell a great story without making up a whole bunch of BS.  Sorry to my account executive friends, but I’ve sat in enough meetings with ad people to know that sometimes their interests are not in line with those of a public relations expert.  Too often they want flash rather than lasting substance and it can leave us out to dry when they sell a bill of goods to a client. We can only advise them that those things are better said in advertising and not through traditional or new PR methods, have them balk, do what they ask because they’ve convinced the client to do it (and made some extra scratch, which is their main function in the long run) and put up with the backlash of those who think we’re lying scumbags because now we have to spin the crap that we never wanted to promote in the first place when it fails to deliver.

    I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore. Yuck.