When I took my first “professional” job in public relations there was a study often touted that said the reputation of PR people was right up there with used car salesmen.

Fortunately, just as the process of buying a car now is more consumer friendly and credible than in 1984, generally the same can be said about those of us who “do” public relations for a living – generally that is.

When it comes to garnering publicity, rule one of media relations is to get headlines for your clients first – good ones – and in the process, do not make a spectacle of yourself, and in turn, make the rest of your colleagues look like charlatans.

Unfortunately, a bunch of “PR” people in some key government jobs, well-heeled agencies, reputable companies, and elsewhere are making some pretty bonehead decisions about how best to “do” PR.

In addition to “doing” PR for a living, I’m on adjunct faculty at Loyola University.  I’m also an optimist and always try to find the good in every situation.  The only good that comes from some of the fiascos of late is that those of us molding the views and practices of future public relations professionals now have access to lots of real-time case studies of what NOT to do.

Let’s start with FEMA – yet again!

A fake news conference!?!?  FEMA Meets the Press, Which Happens to Be . . . FEMA

In 2007, how could anyone – let alone an entire office of public relations cohorts – think this is right or smart?  This is stupid, unforgivable, outrageous, and paid for by our tax dollars.

Now, let’s cruise on to the Navy.  It’s pretty bad when Navy publications are writing negative stories about an endeavor of their own – and then the story becomes a two-part investigation that gets picked up by the Associated Press. Somewhere between a good idea and reality the goodwill journey sailed a bit off course.

“The Navy hospital ship Comfort succeeded as a public relations tool but fell short of realizing its public health potential during a four-month tour of 12 South and Central American countries, critics say. The ship’s crew dispensed free medical care to 98,000 people during a voyage that ended Oct. 19, improving and even saving lives under the Bush administration’s “medical diplomacy” initiative.  Yet when it sailed away, the ship often left patients frustrated and its potential unfulfilled because its agenda was dictated by public relations and politics…”  (Read on at http://www.navytimes.com/news/2007/10/ap_comfort_071030/ )

And then there’s the list of banished PR flacks – by Editor in Chief Chris Anderson of Wired who writes “I’ve had it. I get more than 300 emails a day and my problem isn’t spam (Cloudmark Desktop solves that nicely), it’s PR people. Lazy flacks send press releases to the Editor in Chief of Wired because they can’t be bothered to find out who on my staff, if anyone, might actually be interested in what they’re pitching. Everything else gets banned on first abuse. The following is just the last month’s list of people and companies who have been added to my Outlook blocked list. All of them have sent me something inappropriate at some point in the past 30 days. Many of them sent press releases; others just added me to a distribution list without asking. If their address gets harvested by spammers by being published here, so be it–turnabout is fair play. There is no getting off this list. If you’re on it and have something appropriate to say to me, use a different email address.”

I don’t know Chris and I am not on his list.  I do want to meet him because I agree with him 100 percent!  I like people who think like me.  I want him to come be a guest lecturer in my PR Writing class – and while he’s in town, share his views candidly with anyone who will listen! 

And yes, I think his point is not that far removed from the previous two examples. 

The common denominator is the word “RELATIONS.”  Whether you call it “media relations” or “public relations” the word that defines the function, the process, the opportunity to call it a “profession” and yourself a professional is the R word.  RELATIONS — you need them.

Whether offering a briefing about tragic fires, sharing goodwill and health care with those less fortunate, or pitching the latest gadget, hot company, or rock star CEO, you just cannot carry a business card that says “Public Relations” without understanding the concept behind the R word.  If you don’t, you’re a fraud.  You either need to go back to school or try selling something besides the truth for a living.  — Shawn M. Kahle, APR