PR people are unethical, manipulative liars – or so a couple of LinkedIn discussion threads I’ve been following the past few weeks would have you believe. The first thread, in the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA National) group, featured a professor who was asked by a student “Do you think PR people are ‘supposed’ to lie?” The second one, in the Public Relations and Communications Professionals Group, posed the question: “Is it right to say that PR is a sort of propaganda? Or are they two different concepts? That’s the one that really got my knickers in a twist.
All PR People Lie
I could understand – to a degree – the issue about lying. After all, the term “PR” has been used by journalists and the general public as a euphemism for deception for several decades now. So it’s understandable that college students would default to the belief that PR involves lying. The profession has done little to correct that misrepresentation of the profession. I do have trouble with the thought that today’s college students would choose a profession that they believe involves lying as a matter of course.
Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear: LYING IS NEVER OKAY. EVER. End of discussion. Except it wasn’t the end. This discussion thread has been ongoing for a month now, so obviously the issue isn’t as clear cut as I initially thought.
But what is a lie? Perhaps the student who asked this question has a definition of “lying” that is different from mine. Is it, as many people in this thread have assumed, deliberately providing false information? As one colleague pointed out, how would we classify withholding information, presenting some information and not other information? Is that considered lying by omission? Especially if that information can be used against our company or client, regardless of how well intentioned the facts of the case? Is it our job as PR professionals to volunteer “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Or are we not obligated to include 100% of the information 100% of the time?
Let me summarize the some of the points made in the thread that followed, freely expanded with my own admittedly partisan opinions on the subject:
Jeffrey Geibel, APR LEED AP, pointed out that, “Ethically-challenged individuals exist in every field – for example, the companion professional of journalism – so public relations is not unique in that regard. Over the years, public relations has gotten a bad reputation due to the actions of a number of self-serving (and self-declared as public relations practitioners) individuals and ethically-bankrupt firms, and also unknowledgeable commentators stating (with complete ignorance) what is and isn’t public relations.” I totally agree, but free speech issues will prevent the profession from ever becoming licensed, at least in the US. Puerto Rico is giving it a try, so perhaps there’s hope yet.
Stephen Michael Bauer pointed out that in large part, some of these wounds are self-inflicted, and he is SO right. If the behavior of self-styled “PR mavens” (forgive me, but I don’t know the term for the male version) aren’t enough, Ann Marie van den Hurk pointed out, just look at the examples of PR people in the entertainment media: the MTV series… Sex in the City… Valentine’s Day…ah, if only life imitated art. Trust me, Samantha Jones is a figment of the imagination. And then there’s the habit companies have of hiring cute young things for their attractiveness and saying they “work in PR”. Ahem. Sure. If you say so.
I personally have been in public relations for over 20 years, and have learned that in any profession there are those people who do lie and mislead. It has always happened this way, and it will continue to happen. I can honestly say that dishonesty is the exception and not the rule in this profession. As anyone who has seen my discussion posts, particularly those in response to part two of this post can tell, I take it as a personal insult when people generalize and say all PR people are unethical and dishonest.
As Francine Marlenee so aptly put it, “It is important for us seasoned PR professionals to speak out about the true intention of PR as a tool whereby we “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” This also means that sometimes we will have to move on if the company we represent gets in the way of this. We must remember that is more important to lose your job than your integrity.” Which is why I’m currently freelancing, job hunting, and blogging.
And so ends Part I. I’ll continue with Part II later – after the steam has stopped coming out of my ears and the keyboard has a chance to cool.