Gini Dietrich

What Is Public Relations? We Have a Perception Issue

By: Gini Dietrich | November 2, 2011 | 
118

Last week Heather Whaling wrote a blog post called Dear PR Pro, Is PR Just Professional BSing?

The gist of it is that she was teaching a college course and one of the students said her family and friends thinks she’s going in to a field to professionally BS.

If you’re in PR, you’ve heard this from your friends and family. I remember when Wag the Dog came out and my mom called, after seeing it, and said, “Boy! They don’t make your profession look good.”

Um, no.

So we’re accustomed to either people responding that way or glazing over when we say what we do (that happened to me at a dinner party on Saturday night).

Unfortunately what we do is not tangible. You can’t hold, touch, or feel most of what we do. So people think it’s spin or black magic or professional BSing.

At the end of Heather’s blog post, she said something that stopped me in my tracks.

She said:

This conversation (with the student) got me thinking … and then I started wondering whether we spend too much time focused on defending our industry, instead of just producing high-quality work.

The problem is not that we spend too much time focused on defending our industry. The irony is that our industry has a terrible reputation because we don’t do enough PR for ourselves.

Sure, if every, single PR professional stopped spinning and spamming and did high-quality work, the industry would have a shining reputation. But that’s not practical and a bit naive.

Four years ago, I was at a PRSA senior leader’s event around the holidays. The speaker was the CEO of one of the big PR firm holding companies. During his speech, he actually uttered the words that it is our job to do whatever it takes for the client, even if it’s spin the truth.

Fortunately four years ago I was still a bit intimidated by people in power so I didn’t publicly debate him (and this blog didn’t have the traffic it has now or I would have skewered him). But I did question him (once) before two friends were smart enough to physically remove me from the room.

But my point is this…until we have leaders at the very, very top in the biggest and most powerful firms and corporate senior leaders at the Fortune 500 companies who really get it – I mean really get it – we’ll always have a perception issue.

Until then, or until the handful of us who really believe we can change the perception are in those positions (don’t worry; I’ll get there), it absolutely is up to us to defend our industry, to proactively do our own PR, and to continue doing high-quality work so that outshines the bad.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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118 responses to “What Is Public Relations? We Have a Perception Issue”

  1. BasicBlogTips says:

    Hi @ginidietrich @hackmanj just listened to your latest interview. Great stuff. Thanks!!

  2. I feel like I continually having this argument with friends and family about what it is that I do. As long as the big PR holding firms continue to have this sort of mindset, it’ll continue to be an uphill battle.

  3. KenMueller says:

    And this isn’t just a PR problem. There are a lot of professions that have this perception issues, and in most cases it’s their own fault. Politics, law, etc. We need to raise the bar, keep pushing, keep doing things the right way, and teaching students (future practitioners) that it DOES matter. I told my students that the moment they get out there, there will be pressure to take shortcuts and do things that are “business as usual”, but unless they resist, noting will change.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @KenMueller When you start out in the industry, you’re given the task of media relations. And, where I “grew up,” nothing was thought of mass distribution. I mean, we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to send bottles of juice to media who hadn’t asked for it. The idea shames me today.

      • KenMueller says:

        @ginidietrich That’s why we need to do a better job of preparing students. We teach the principles and the basics, but not the reality of what they will face. Pretty scary.

        • ginidietrich says:

          @KenMueller How do you, though, prepare them to tell their boss, in their first job, that that isn’t the way things should be done?

        • KenMueller says:

          @ginidietrich I think part of it is just making them aware that they WILL face it. And unfortunately, that’s the hard part. Ethics would dictate walking away from jobs, but in this economy, and right out of college, is that too much to ask? If you speak up, then you’re branded as a troublemaker and malcontent, and it just perpetuates things. But at least we need to make them aware of what REALLY goes on out there, and hopefully soon there will be more agencies like AD where they can seek out employment. Hopefully more people like you will begin to open their own agencies.

    • HowieSPM says:

      @KenMueller@ginidietrich politics. I love how when most people are asked do they trust congress they all say no. But then ask about their own rep and often they say they like the job they are doing.

  4. crgilvr says:

    When we do a great job, it’s invisible (particularly in crisis communications). When we do a poor job, it’s all over the headlines. This feeds ‘confirmation bias’ that PR is an unethical, shady process.

    • @crgilvr Huh. I hadn’t thought of it like that – but you’re right!

    • ginidietrich says:

      @crgilvr It’s kind of like SEO…people think it’s black magic. But, if done really well, it’s ethical AND valuable.

      • KenMueller says:

        @ginidietrich@crgilvr You could throw Social Media in there as well.

        • @KenMueller@ginidietrich@crgilvr Well, there’s a reason that many have skewed world views about what social media really can do, thanks to ‘tree-hugging social media purists’ (a phrase playfully presented by Jason Falls in his new book). Yes, conversations matter. Yes, businesses need to be social – but we really don’t know how to do that (yet) at a deep philosophical level.

        • KenMueller says:

          @jasonkonopinski@ginidietrich@crgilvr That’s the point Gini has made here. The reason we have a perception problem in any of these areas is because of what some in each of these areas continue to do, whether it be PR, SM, or SEO. And I think most small businesses DO know how to be social, because they do it everyday in the brick and mortar world. It’s just a matter of translating that to digital, but they have been so preconditioned by marketing and advertising, that their approach is wrong.

        • HowieSPM says:

          @jasonkonopinski@KenMueller@ginidietrich@crgilvr Jason you read business books? Not sure we can be buddies now. 8)

        • HowieSPM says:

          @KenMueller@jasonkonopinski@ginidietrich@crgilvr the reason marketing and advertising has preconditioned small business is because they want to be needed and paid, even if they aren’t needed! And many professions are like this.

  5. patrickreyes says:

    @ginidietrich Good morning, Gini!

  6. jeffespo says:

    @ginidietrich do you defend with a sword or a gun?

  7. joshsternberg says:

    @ginidietrich sad that this discussion in an annual one. maybe we should have governing laws, higher barrier to entry, etc?

  8. KeithTrivitt says:

    Gini, you rightly note that it is up to all that work in public relations to defend the industry’s value, and enhance that value through high-quality work. As you and your readers know, it is something we have been working hard on for several years now at PRSA through our “Business Case for Public Relations” initiative (http://ow.ly/7gwaO), but also through general advocacy efforts and a more proactive and robust outreach campaign to the business community and others who use and could derive value from public relations’ services.

    Your point about the industry needing more Fortune 500 PR execs who “really get” the modern age of PR is well taken; however, I think we need to be careful not to overgeneralize this point. I know of many successful and innovative PR pros who are the top PR execs at Fortune 500 companies. People like Gary Sheffer at GE and Bill Margaritis at FedEx, who are considered some of the most successful and digitally-savvy execs in the business. They clearly “get it.”

    Tthe goal for the industry now should be to ensure a majority of practitioners, whether a young AE or a senior exec “get it” at all levels. That is obviously not easy, but it is something I believe the PR industry is making strides toward changing. And certainly, posts like yours that raise new light on this issue help in that regard.

    Keith Trivitt

    Associate Director

    PRSA

    • ginidietrich says:

      @KeithTrivitt Sure, Keith, there are really great practitioners at the Fortune 10 companies. Beth Comstock (even though CMO) at GE is another example. But they’re few and far between. And, from my own experience, I know they don’t exist at the highest level of the global PR firms. They exist one level below, but typically the people running the holding companies are attorneys, not communication professionals. And that makes a huge difference.

    • Soulati | PR says:

      Do you know of any successful corporate PR pros at Avon, H-P and Netflix? Because that’s where they need to get a job. I don’t recall seeing FedEx or GE publicly gaffing and flip-flopping corporate messages; the rest ought to take lessons from Messrs. Sheffer and Margaritis. @KeithTrivitt

  9. Frankly, I’m a bit sick of hearing about this issue. Perception problems exist among every profession I can think of, and each is tainted by the worst within its ranks. Quick, tell me what you think of when I mention the following professions? What image jumps into your mind?

    PR

    Sales

    Lawyers

    CPA’s

    Wall Street Bankers

    Actors

    Customer Service / Account Managers

    Doctors

    Flight Attendants

    Politicians

    etc, etc, etc…

    Show me a professional that does not have a perception issue, and I’ll show you a professional that has not been around long enough to develop one (yet).

    • ginidietrich says:

      @Sean McGinnis I’m sick of it, too. But it clearly needs to be defined, defended, and proactively worked on. That’s why the vision of Spin Sucks Pro is to change the perception of the PR and marketing industries. We’re going to do it through education and advocating for the highest quality work.

    • Lisa Gerber says:

      @Sean McGinnis Well sure there are perception issues in every profession, and in every walk of life, for that matter, but we are in the business of reputation management. We should be the best at it for our own industry.

      • HowieSPM says:

        @Lisa Gerber@Sean McGinnis@ginidietrich Sean you are correct. We have imbedded in our societal structure incentives to behave this way vs incentives to be ethical. How many whistle blowers get fired, ostracized or abused at work after?

        I mean the fact Diffusion of Responsibility removes a lot of people’s accountability (this is why good people will riot or a crime victim in a crowd not get any help or to extremes think old Soviet KGB where neighbors spied on each other or even Nazi germany or the US slaughter of the natives or the US people not caring about what our army does because out of sight out of mind) is creepy.

    • @Sean McGinnis agreed – you beat me to it – though I qualified as an accountant and they also cop some stick (boring?? moi???) – although CPA might be that (is that the US term?)

      If you believe public percpetion of any industry – you are going to have a problem. The trick for leaders is to use your own mind/experiences to judge each book by its cover and make decisions accordingly……

      For what it’s worth – of the industrys I have met – PR professionals do actually tend to be amongst the nicest/best to work with – maybe they do have good PR after all!!

  10. rickbanas says:

    I would have loved to have been there to ask the CEO where ethics and integrity come into play. Does he really view his role as a professional consultant when he comes across as a lackey who takes and fills orders. How would he view a Professional Consultant who does Market Studies for proposed assisted living communities saying the results should reflect what the client wants the outcome to be versus what reality says it should be.

  11. HowieSPM says:

    I am going to re-title this by replacing PR with advertising.

    The difference I think is that people expect corporations to blatantly lie when it comes to PR and perception. Tobacco doesn’t cause cancer. Hydrofracking is safe.Tiger Woods isn’t a pig male. Bankers aren’t greedy. Car emissions don’t cause pollution or global climate change. Walmart isn’t an abusive employer or abusive sourcer using child labor to make cheap goods.

    BTW did you see BP got the go ahead to drill an even more dangerous and deeper well in the Gulf?

    Advertising is different. What is at stake is so much less. Is Tide really new and improved? Does Zest really not leave a sticky film on you? Am I really part of the Pepsi Generation. None of this threatens the world or communities or our livelihoods. PR can.

    BTW I always carry Knockem Sockem Robots with me so if i need to fight it is in the ring.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @HowieSPM Can I borrow a Knockem Sockem Robot?

      You make a great point about PR being the discipline able to change the way the conversation goes and what people are discussing. Part of the problem is so many companies just want bad things to go away so they approve the “whatever it takes” approach.

      • HowieSPM says:

        @ginidietrich it is human nature. Ask anyone who has had stress paying bills in their life. You take that letter and you hide it somewhere and make believe everything is fine. But there is a huge difference. I am ok with individuals being delusional in ways that only affect themselves. But when actions affect whole groups of people that is very unethical.

        The worst part is CEO’s can hang on and make enough money so when they get booted they don’t care. I bet if there was a 5 year wage clawback they would behave differently.

      • rustyspeidel says:

        @ginidietrich@HowieSPM Then maybe that should quit doing the bad things. The promise of social was that the customer would drive this change, but that hasn’t really happened yet.

  12. rustyspeidel says:

    The perception is that PR’s job is to promote and get people excited about whatever version of reality their clients want. What it sounds like you’re aiming for is a role that helps those clients find and communicate a path that is more positive, ethical, holistic, customer-centric, and socially beneficial. But a lot of companies don’t operate and can’t make money that way. Fracking, natural gas pipelines, oil and tobacco companies, McDonald’s, big banks, Wall Street–these are not industries that benefit from, shall we say, “transparency.” So how can you work with any of them and keep your reputation intact? They pay you to make them look good, but not in the way we’d prefer, which is to actually make them DO things that are good and then share that.

    So, what to do? Drop all unethical and self-centered companies from the list? Stand up to them and educate them? Run with their evil plans? They’ve clearly benefitted from the status quo.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @rustyspeidel We have a list of companies we won’t work with. More than half of your list is on our list. There are PR firms that will work in those industries…for the money and the “fame.” But I lead my company as an ethical one and, if a client wants us to do something unethical or not tell the whole truth, we fire them. I’ve done it several times in the past six years.

  13. Soulati | PR says:

    Dang. This goes hand in hand with my post today “Boing Boing Corporate PR.” You know I’d never promote myself here if it wasn’t relevant, and you were the first and only so far to lend a comment in support of this very issue (as above).

    We in PR are suffering from being relegated to the back room. Whether or not we have a seat at the table, our counsel is not getting heard; case in point at my house today. Are we being overridden my legal (happens all the time); are the boards of directors at the Fortune companies too powerful and disregard strategic PR counsel…could very well be.

    So, what’s to be done? Let the CEOs make the public gaffes, and we come in to mop up the puke (sorry, had to be graphic on that; b/c that’s how it’s beginning to feel…pukey.)

    I’m at a loss of something smart to say; some action point that helps us all get a stronger foothold. Do you think the senior strategists are not being hired due to cost of wage? Expensive? I dunno. Sad.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @Soulati | PR I think it comes down to something very simple: Until we learn how to measure our results to the BOTTOM LINE, we won’t have a seat at the table. When we do that – all of us – we’ll be able to not only have a seat, but be heard.

    • @Soulati | PR Gini is right re providing measurable value (vs Sales, vs the accountants etc) – but I always liked PR folk who had a real understanding of the business, of the issues more than just the PR side of things…. Understand what the business is doing and assist in its goals. Multi skilled folk are the way forward anyway…

      The “Yes we know it won’t look good – but how do we do it anyway” Methodologies…..

  14. ladylaff says:

    Your anecdote about the PR CEO made me realise that there’s a whole faction of the industry that has reached the (IMHO flawed) conclusion that entitlement to PR is somehow comparable to entitlement to legal representation. Those people seem to believe that all companies should have access to the best PR advice possible, regardless of whether they have exploited child labour, dumped hazardous waste, hacked phones, or simply produced crappy products and services. But that’s just ridiculous. The idea all companies should have equal opportunity to SPIN (which,as we know SUCKS!) is ethically and morally WRONG because the only companies that need to do this are by definition, already guilty!

    • ginidietrich says:

      @ladylaff I’m reading a book (fiction) right now that is about a big NY based company that dumps all of their chemicals in a creek in southern Mississippi. The people who live in that town are dying of cancer nine times higher than the U.S. average. The company hires the best counsel – legal and communication – and they fight the little guy until they’re out of business. While it’s not a true story, it’s pretty indicative of these types of situations today.

  15. KevinVandever says:

    Yes, I think it’ll take both: Positive PR for the PR industry and high quality work. One problem with that is that If the PR industry has a perception issue, the PR industry might be the last group who can successfully defend the PR industry. High quality work plus time might be better ways to change the perception. I realize that might seem a bit naive, but it is no different than any other industry. If the perception is that I am a lousy software developer, my putting in extra effort into defending myself, without doing the high quality work to back it up, won’t do much good. The naivety, where PR concerned, might signify that the perception is closer to reality than the industry would like to admit. The high quality work must come first, to show that even if the negative PR perception is a little too close to reality, that you and your company are different. Slowly, the word gets out about you and your company and the need to change the perception either becomes easier, because you can back up the high quality work, or it becomes irrelevant and maybe even an advantage that you compete with your high quality work and standards in an industry that doesn’t necessarily do so.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @KevinVandever I think there is a bigger issue at play, though. We can “mess” with people’s ethics, but we’re not governed. This is a conversation @KeithTrivitt and I have had a lot. Unfortunately, PRSA is a membership organization so they can’t govern the industry. I think that’s one of the few ways we can make sure these shoddy practices aren’t used.

  16. rommel_romero says:

    @ginidietrich I’d say: focus on high-quality work, then work hard on publicizing that good work. Goal: eventually, overwhelm spin.

  17. suegrimm says:

    I’ve never commented here before but this post raised an issue that’s been on my mind as I get to know you and others by reading your blogs. Your post is an example of something that reminds me why I love (and sometimes hate) the internet. There was a time not very long ago when leadership was only defined by those who could get attention through mainstream media and most of the time for doing the wrong thing. Then the government or industry groups would step in and try to regulate behavior and often get it wrong. Yes, it still happens and will for a long time to come. But today, as we can witness by the Klout debate, we have an incredible opportunity to self-regulate. Not just our industry, but in many, many others as well. None of it will happen quickly, but to think individual voices can be heard, and to have an open platform for these types of discussions has been the biggest game changer of my long career in external relations and I welcome it, warts and all. No, I am not going to tell you how long that has been – but it has been a long time.:-) I believe we are just beginning to self-regulate and all will be better for it so keep beating the drum. People ARE listening.

    • ginidietrich says:

      @suegrimm Hi Sue! I’m glad you felt comfortable commenting. The people here are kind of nuts so beware…you’re on your way down! 🙂

      I love this – WE have the opportunity to self-regulate. I wish I’d thought of that when I wrote the blog post this morning. It would have added a very valuable layer.

      Any interest in taking this comment and turning it into a guest post? I think @Lisa Gerber would agree with me that it’s really good.

      • suegrimm says:

        Oh my goodness. Gini I am well aware it’s nuts around here and now you are asking for me to put myself out there in a guest post? Yikes. My hands are sweating already. I’ll get in touch with Lisa after I think this through more 🙂

        • Lisa Gerber says:

          @suegrimm Nothing like jumping right in from first comment to guest post!!! We are scheduling for end of December right now so do get in touch via email when you’re ready so we can at least put you in the calendar. lots of time!! lgerber at arment dietrich dot com.

        • ginidietrich says:

          @suegrimm LMAO!! Great point…I guess I didn’t really sell that appropriately, did I?!?

        • Tinu says:

          May I join in the chant? Guest post! Guest post! 🙂 @ginidietrich @suegrimm

    • @suegrimm What an entrance! Wonderful points.

      • suegrimm says:

        @jasonkonopinski@ginidietrich@Lisa Gerber Thanks. First time with this commenting system too!!! It’s all good. I took the advice I was given too far I guess. Don’t comment until you have something to say. It’s nice to meet you all and I look forward to more.

  18. MrBallentine says:

    What also doesn’t help matters much is when traditional magazines publishers create headlines like, “Kim Kardashian Wedding…PR Stunt”. Headlines such as that, only further the association that public relations is used for “EVIL”… Anytime a celebrity apologizes, that’s another dent in the PR armor.

    Sadly, however, I think it has more to do with human nature and our tendency to focus on the negative more than positive examples. Plus, with all the high-quality work that is produced by so many in the industry, they’re like unsung heroes. With the exception of trade papers, they are never the mainstream story so their work goes unappreciated by the masses. In order for PR as a whole to get a better reputation, it might need a re-branding.

    Are you up to the task?

    • ginidietrich says:

      It’s funny you use that particular example because EVERYONE has been asking me if it was a publicity stunt. It disturbs me to think someone would spent nearly $20MM for more “fame.” But it works because, you’re right, as human beings we’re attracted to that kind of trash.

      Our vision for Spin Sucks Pro really is to change the perception through education and giving people the tools and resources they need to do high-quality work. It may never happen in my lifetime, but I certainly want to be forging the path through my business.

  19. ginidietrich says:

    @lpiotto Thanks!

  20. bowhite says:

    Couldn’t agree more Gini. When one of Australia’s most respected journalists took a swipe at the industry last week, I had to have a rant on my blog. There are so many people doing good work

    You can read it here. http://gettingpastpr.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/what-gutenberg-can-teach-pr-people/

  21. ginidietrich says:

    @PaulRobertsPAR Thanks!

  22. ginidietrich says:

    @SuziMcCoyGMG It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

  23. Tinu says:

    Ironically, I never thought of PR as being a spin of the truth – I know some people use it that way. That just seems to be who those particular people are. Whenever I connected spin and PR, I thought of it as a company presenting their perspective in a way that completed whatever public perception was. But yes, in a war for clarity, there has to be both offensive and defensive strategy. It’s absolutely about doing PR for the PR industry, as much as its about doing good word. We all know build it and they will come is a bunch of crap. What’s beautiful now is that we have the technology to make sure the true stories penetrate the noise.

  24. ginidietrich says:

    @belllindsay Morning!

  25. Shonali says:

    Just doing good work is a huge part of the answer, I think. Yes, I do think we still have to defend it, but at the end of the day, one’s work speaks for itself. It also leaves a much longer-term impression, I think. dbreakenridge was kind enough to let me guest post for her the other day, and I posited that whether we have the word “teacher” (or “faculty,” or whatever) in our bios, we are teaching every day. We’re teaching clients, we’re teaching our colleagues, we’re teaching our audiences, we’re teaching the public. If we do a good job there, that will go so much further, don’t you think?

  26. […] companies who really get it – I mean really get it – we’ll always have a perception issue.Via http://www.spinsucks.com Share this: This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← […]

  27. danohuang says:

    @dibegin man that’s sad but that’s perception. Lots of good PR folks who are professional and high integrity…bad apples make it hard.

  28. […] back that up for people to really start to respect and rely on you. So are you doing that? Are you doing good work in your area that sows the seeds for what is to […]

  29. YasinAkgun says:

    “This conversation (with the student) got me thinking … and then I started wondering whether we spend too much time focused on defending our industry, instead of just producing high-quality work.”

    I recently bought a book by one an American lady who’s known as ‘one of the best things to happen in PR’. The first quarter of her book was immediate defending defending defending and justifying PR. In the end I gave up reading.

  30. […] did you secure from the program and how can you utilize those in the future? Critics will always question what we do. Demonstrate key results of the campaign and the good it […]

  31. […] What Is Public Relations? We Have a Perception Issue originally appeared on Spin Sucks on November 2, 2011. […]

  32. […] back that up for people to really start to respect and rely on you. So are you doing that? Are you doing good work in your area that sows the seeds for what is to […]

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