We’ve heard that when some people think of PR, they conjure up images of Mad Men in smoke-filled rooms, spin doctors in the dark arts of strategic communication, or shadowy manipulators pulling the strings of public opinion. And as it turns out, they’re not alone. Back in 2015, a survey found that 70% of the British public said they don’t trust PR practitioners. This image problem has been compounded by recent and well-publicised scandals such as Bell Pottinger, which rightly called into question the ethics of the profession.
I was recently in a room full of PR agency leaders when the question of ethics was raised. The majority said they believed their companies behaved ethically. The conversation moved on to how ethical behaviour is defined by workplace policies, and by the clients you choose to take. It was agreed in the end that it was a question of reputation, rather than ethics, that the industry sometimes suffers from.
At TopLine, we’re doing our part to prove that ‘PR’ doesn’t deserve a bad rap. Here are some ideas for how the industry as a whole can turn perceptions around.
Clarify our relationship with the media
The media is fundamental to PR. And so naturally, as journalism has faced a number of challenges in moving online – the rise of clickbait, fake news, and the demise of traditional funding models – PR has become entangled in this messy transformation.
People in PR need to make two things clear. First is that the principles of journalism are fundamental to upholding freedom of speech and freedom of information. The second is that public relations, defined as “the way organisations communicate with the public, promote themselves, and build a positive reputation and public image,” is perfectly compatible with journalism. PR has a role to fulfil in providing information that can allow media to author the stories that they believe are important.
As a B2B PR agency, we’re big believers in the importance of a great story. We believe in putting out factual information and insightful opinions that journalists actually want to cover. Sometimes this means pushing back on clients – journalists want “man bites dog,” not “dog bites man” – because we’re always looking out for their best interest. Relationships are key, but no journalist will print something on the basis of who you know – and we never ask them to.
Rewrite the connotations of ‘PR talk’
Aside from the more sinister accusations levelled at PR, there is the valid criticism that the industry tends toward jargon, fluff, and ‘PR speak’. If you’re writing that your product “boasts innovatively leveraged solutions,” you need to stop and think about what you’re really trying to say. The public wants specific, straightforward, and informative language, that actually means something and treats them like adults.
When you’re writing for a client, you need to ride a fine line between factual and promotional, ensuring that the copy is neither too dry nor sickly-sweet. This means that you’re going to have to ‘murder your darlings’: a specific phrase, framing, or term that you love might not be the best way to the point across, and you might need to let it go. Following the style guide is an excellent way to ensure that your writing stays on target – your proof-reader will thank you.
Pitching is the art of reducing a story until all that is left are its most crucial points, and it’s a critical part of what we do as PR professionals. As our media relations team can tell you, an overly wordy pitch goes unread. Our best piece of advice is to describe the story to the journalist the same way you would to a friend in the pub. All of us in the PR industry should try to make all of our writing to look a little more like a good pitch: straightforward, accurate, and to the point.
Prove that good PR can be measured
PR often gets a bad rep for being ‘intangible’. The PR member associations PRCA and CIPR have done excellent work in this area recently – including denouncing the previously widely used ‘advertising value equivalent’. The industry needs to continue to look at new ways to quantify success, such as the Barcelona Principles.
At TopLine, we take quantifiability seriously – one of our three guiding values is a Galileo quote: “Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not so”. We match business objectives to outcomes, and constantly find new ways to measure impact – check out our list of 30 examples. Fortunately for the industry, the increasing prevalence of digital PR has produced a rich variety of metrics to use to determine exactly how effective your communications are.
Cleaning up our reputation
It’s ironic that the industry which works with companies to improve their public perception has such an image problem itself. The overwhelming majority of PR firms are doing excellent, creative, ethical work, and it’s our responsibility to prove that to the public. We can do that by following the principles of journalism and putting out genuinely newsworthy stories, keeping our language precise and avoiding fluffy ‘PR speak’, and working toward accountability by quantifying our successes. With those three simple steps, the industry should be back on its way into the public’s good graces.
If you’re convinced that PR doesn’t deserve its bad reputation and want to find out what we can do for your business, contact us today.
Written by: Katy Bloomfield – Head of Client Relations