PR has a PR Problem…and it’s Journalists, Pt. I

Late last night, as I sat grading final projects from my PR writing students, I had one of the all-news TV stations droning on in the background for the noise to keep me going, I heard it. The “P” word. Actually, he said the “P words – plural.

PR Problem.

As in, “that company has a PR problem,” meaning that company has been caught with doing something it shouldn’t  and now needs to whitewash its sins. Cue the insincere gaggle of spinmeisters, racing in to dish out the fluff, to distract everyone and make it all better so the company can go back to business as usual, screwing the public. Hmmm….sorry, I don’t see any racing going on.

In a way, it’s not the fault of the anchor tasked with filling that particular hour on a Friday evening with trying to make the endless repetition of news interesting. He was just using a term that is all too common in the news media. And it’s our fault – we PR people. We allowed it to happen. And now we’re paying for it… and I’m fed up with it.

It’s no secret that the PR profession has more than its share of people who don’t belong in it. People who can’t write, can’t spell, and think that there’s nothing more to it than being a “people person” with “charisma” [insert your best high school voice here]. As a professional wordsmith and teach of PR writing, this drives me nuts. Journalism has its share of the guilty as well, which is the topic of another blog post.

For most of the last century and this one, journalists have seen themselves guardians of the public, watchdogs for the voiceless, enshrined in the aura of the Bill of Rights. PR people, on the other hand are the Evil Ones, corrupt purveyors of the Dark Arts, sinister shadowy beings….well, you get the idea.

PR execs tend to have a deep-seated respect for reporters and the journalistic world. Many of us started out as journalists, others were taught in college that journalists were the ultimate wordsmiths. We grew up idolizing Edward R. Murrow, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Walter Cronkite and others of their ilk. After all, who else spends so much time studying reporters, their habits and preferences? We obsess over every interaction, every word, every contact with reporters. Major companies such as Cision, Vocus, BurrellesLuce and others provide detailed dossiers on what subjects they cover, and how they prefer to be contacted. We’re more obsessed with them than the most dedicated stalker.

And how is that devotion returned? Journalists casually use terms like “PR ploy, PR problem, flacks,” etc., as their favorite pejorative, to the point where PR has become synonymous with lies, cover ups, corruption and any number of other sins. Don’t believe me? Just Google “Journalists hate PR.”

And in our reverence and reluctance to cross those almighty reporters who hold the key to coverage of our clients, we have allowed them to saddle our profession with a reputation it doesn’t deserve.

We can’t afford to live in fear of the Big Bad Reporter anymore. According to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists:

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

[Emphasis mine]

That goes for accidental, casual distortion as well. I think it’s time that journalists reexamine their choice of words, and stop unfairly maligning the public relations profession. For the good of both PR and journalism, we need to speak up when we as a profession are unfairly maligned.

More on this topic later.

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