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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