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Rescuing PR's reputation: multiple challenges have put public relations practitioners on the defensive--but there are ways to save the profession's credibility and integrity.

Corporate communication is facing a credibility crisis, and public relations practitioners are especially vulnerable. This crisis stems from a significant gap between theory and practice in the profession. Issues of identity, ethics and competence are undermining PR's reputation. As far back as 1992, in Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, edited by James Grunig, IABC identified a lack of respect for the PR profession as a critical challenge, particularly in view of the climate of distrust in which practitioners were operating. As long as we ignore these issues, our credibility will be in jeopardy.

Despite its strategic management function, PR continues to be perceived as simply publicity. So long as our clients assume that media relations is all we do, we are limited in our ability to provide comprehensive services. Getting "free publicity" is one of the most common client expectations, and it is often the primary measure of a practitioner's effectiveness. At the same time, members of the news media, no matter how hungry they are for stories, remain justifiably skeptical of the newsworthiness of leads coming from our offices. Indeed, they rarely view PR practitioners as equal partners in public information, and hostility between the professions is common.

Moreover, the line between public relations and marketing has blurred. This is narrowing the definition of the discipline to corporate profit making. Yet, as Ange Frymire, president of Vocal Point Communications in Victoria, British Columbia, points out, "Only one-third of the bottom line is financial. It should also be social and environmental." Indeed, the essence of public relations is relationships with publics. Yet some employers measure the effectiveness of PR efforts based on sales figures. Nick Douloff, public relations program coordinator at Ryerson University in Toronto, suggests that the PR practitioner's role is not to increase sales but rather "[to build] relationships and favorably [predispose] publics toward clients by securing good reputation based on good performance." Of course, as long as practitioners go along with promising results beyond their capacity to deliver (for example, increased sales), PR will continue to be subordinated to achieving short-term product-sales goals.

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Watching out for "disasters"

Reactive solutions in crisis management have also become associated with public relations, with organizational crises often relabeled in popular culture as "PR disasters" or "PR nightmares." Patricia Parsons, professor of public relations at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, notes that "several high-profile public relations disasters have reinforced our reputation for 'covering things.'" Michael Turney, professor of communications at Northern Kentucky University, assigns responsibility for this negative view to certain practitioners who are "in the habit of publicly bragging about what they can accomplish, how well they can spin, turn things around--so something negative winds up sounding positive." While proactively preparing crisis plans and executing crisis communications are necessary, PR is almost exclusively associated with ex post facto damage control in the eyes of the public. This association casts doubt on the integrity of clients as well as on practitioners' ethics.

Representing clients who are considered morally objectionable can also call into question the ethics of a firm or practitioner. In the criminal justice system, even the guilty are entitled to representation. However, representing all clients and causes, regardless of their moral status in society, can have serious consequences. In fact, certain agencies with "gray area" clients have begun to rethink who they represent and have even declined to take on certain clients who provoke moral controversy. While PRSA's Matrix of Ethical Dilemmas clearly identifies "representing unhealthy causes; representing unpopular causes/ clients; and representing criminal clients" as problematic, the "gray area" clientele are not necessarily excluded from public relations practice. Yet, according to The Wall Street Journal, Hill & Knowlton, once known for "keeping company" with more than a few shady characters, has been turning down some clients (such as Hooters) to "[distance] itself from past controversies and [boost] its bottom line." The effect of a damaged reputation has apparently not been lost on the firm, nor should it be among PR practitioners in general.

In addition to being accused of unethical activity for representing unpopular clients or unhealthy causes, PR has been criticized for facilitating deceptive practices such as "flogging" (fake blogging), "astro-turfing" (fake grassroots lobbying) and "stealth marketing" (fake promotions with actors masquerading as private citizens). Making promotional comments in blogs without disclosing that one is being paid to do so is a deceptive tactic that capitalizes on the proliferation and power of the new medium. The pro-Wal-Mart blog, Wal-Marting Across America, offers a dramatic demonstration: It was exposed in an October 2006 issue of BusinessWeek as "a promotional tactic engineered by Working Families for WalMart, an organization launched by Wal-Mart's public relations firm, Edelman." Certainly, an enormous number of people had never even heard of Edelman PR until then, and in this highly damaging context. [For more on this topic, see Tech Talk in the March-April 2007 issue of CW.]

Frymire refers to flogging as "electronic spin," while Parsons argues that it violates the principle of transparency and is "no different from operating a front group." Operating front groups to lobby government without disclosing the source of the group and its sponsorship has actually become a specialty of certain agencies. But as Turney points out, "if you stringently read the codes of ethics [of professional associations such as IABC and PRSA], it should not be happening."

Practitioners can also be complicit in causing physical harm to members of the public when they subvert science in ways that can affect people's health. The "research" funded by The Tobacco Institute that downplays the negative health effects of smoking and the "debate" over whether global warming is real are cases in point. Selective inattention to research that contradicts one's promotional efforts is a serious ethical violation, as is creating problems that can only be solved by the client's product. When practitioners market some drugs for pharmaceutical companies, the latter practice is known as "disease branding" or "disease mongering." Considering that even legitimate therapeutic interventions can have harmful side effects, encouraging people to expose themselves unnecessarily to such risk for corporate profit raises some very serious ethical questions.

A question of competency

The use of research is not just an ethical issue in public relations, however. In late 2006, I led a group of public relations students at Ryerson University in a small content analysis study of award-winning PR cases. Our study substantiated Parsons' claim that "research is not done, not with the rigor that it should be," despite the fact that we must use legitimate data collection techniques to produce sound communication plans for clients and to prove our effectiveness. Without sufficient knowledge of research methodology to evaluate secondary research (let alone to conduct original primary research), it is impossible to produce a legitimate analysis upon which to base a sound strategic plan. Also, the routine use of media measures for program evaluation is not always appropriate, especially when such publicity is not a stated program objective. Nonetheless, evaluation in public relations has pretty much become equated with media measures, and yet, even when appropriate, their validity is highly questionable.

The study I helped conduct at Ryerson University on program evaluation was based on an assumption that award-winning cases from a local communication awards program would be representative of a standard of performance in public relations that would be very close to the ideal. However, while conducting their content analysis, the students were disappointed to discover that most of these program plans were full of errors. In many cases, practitioners confused goals with objectives and objectives with strategies. Also, they typically did not create empirically measurable objectives. Some were simply written without the sophistication expected of professionally produced plans, especially award-winning ones. Indeed, a few did not even appear to have been proofread.

The written and verbal communication skills of PR students present further evidence of competence issues in the profession. Ours is a communication-based discipline that requires proficiency in these skills. Yet a number of program students do not produce consistent, concise, clear or even coherent written and verbal communications. Certainly, such shortcomings are not universal. But the fact that they exist at all among individuals who will hold credentials as professional communicators is unacceptable. PR educators should not have to ask each other, How did these students get this far? Clients will soon be relying on these students to produce a superior standard of communication on their behalf.

As Frymire notes, "if we are not competent, we are not being ethical; if we are not ethical, we lose our identity; if we lose our identity, we lose our competence--it is circular." In view of this, the following recommendations were offered:

1 To establish a strong professional identity, we should not only embody but also promote the definitions and theories of our discipline. To this end, professional associations should practice public relations for public relations--that is, execute communication campaigns on behalf of the profession itself.

2 To resolve ethical challenges, practitioners should become members of professional associations with binding codes of ethics and be required to take at least one ethics course. Also, while we should respond swiftly and directly to all allegations of unethical behavior, it is (obviously) even more important to cease and desist from engaging in activities that could violate our codes of ethics.

3 To eliminate doubt concerning our competence and our effectiveness, accreditation should become mandatory, and appropriate educational qualifications should be secured by practitioners and demanded by employers. Additionally, we should reform our PR education systems to teach standards of practice (including ethics) as well as valid and reliable research and evaluation techniques while enforcing professional standards of proficiency in written and verbal communication skills.

Our identity, ethics and competence issues need to be addressed in the interest of protecting the integrity as well as the reputation of the public relations profession. As long as our own house is not in order, our credibility is suspect. For how can we possibly make the case to our clients that we can help them to be recognized as legitimate, ethical and competent while we do not appear capable of doing so for ourselves?

Rita Marie Devin, Ph.D., is an ethnographer who has taught sociology courses in theory, research and subcultural groups at several universities in Canada. She is currently completing a certificate in public relations at Ryerson University in Toronto.
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Author:Devin, Rita Marie
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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