Does PR have a communication problem?

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

With increased media scrutiny on the industry amid the Bell Pottinger scandal, is it about time PR addressed its communication problem?

The Bell Pottinger scandal which has engulfed the PR world over the past week has put the industry at the forefront of the news agenda, making the front-page splash of big business papers like The Financial Times and City AM and a memorable feature on Newsnight in the form of *that* interview with co-founder Lord Bell.

Having been kicked out of the PRCA trade body last week for ‘bringing [the] industry into disrepute’, suffering an exodus of big name clients and the UAE branch of the firm threatening to voluntarily break away from disgraced UK parent company, it’s no surprise the inevitable has now come to pass for Bell Pottinger. The regular big hitter in the PR Week Top 150 and formerly prestigious square mile firm announced Tuesday it was entering administration.

So what does all this mean for the industry as a whole? Well, PR is now in the news rather than behind it. A rare and somewhat uncomfortable feeling, after all, it’s not unfair to say we are paid to shape the headlines not make them.

What I find striking about the coverage of Bell Pott’s demise, however, is how little detail there is about what they actually did. I’m not suggesting for a second no wrongdoing took place, rather that the ins and outs of how the firm breached ethical practice lack definition in the mainstream reporting of the scandal.

We’ve all heard that the firm agreed to take on a client, the billionaire Gupta family, with close links to South African President Jacob Zuma for £100,000 a month – enough to set alarm bells ringing in itself.

But controversial doesn’t necessarily constitute unethical.

No, it’s when we hear that Bell Pottinger ran a campaign that ‘stirred up racial tensions’ in South Africa, promoting the #WhiteMonolopyCapital hashtag that we begin to get a sense of how they were in breach of industry codes of conduct.

But this is the only reference to something specific in the campaign that I can recall seeing in the press over the last week or so. Of course, it’s an accessible example to use and perhaps it’s felt mainstream audiences are not really interested in the finer details. Yet, I can’t help but get feeling that if this were a banking scandal we’d hear a little more about the practices which led things to go south – probably involving a large green screen and a presenter talking us through the timeline of events.

Why am I rambling on about this lack of detail? Well, I’m convinced it’s because nobody actually knows, or even cares, about what it is we do. Which should come as no surprise.

There’s a dichotomy in the public perception of PR between a ‘lack of understanding’ and an ‘everyone’s an expert’ view. The latter is a source of great pain for practitioners, particularly in-house communicators who are all too familiar with being taught how to suck eggs by colleagues in other departments. There’s nothing worse than being told how to make something ‘go viral’ by Jen from HR who is, naturally, the font of all knowledge on the subject having watched a few cat videos on YouTube.

I speak in jest, of course, but the frustration is a very real one.

Perhaps worse than being told how to do our job is the flip side of the coin in which people constantly misinterpret what it is we do and therefore fail to see any value in it. This harks back to much broader discussions on why we’re constantly having to try and prove our worth as communication professionals, the importance of using effective evaluation metrics and proactively challenging the idea we have no impact on a company’s ‘bottom line’.

Worryingly, we don’t have to look far to prove this point.

Just think what would happen if you were to ask a friend or family member to define what it is they think you do, they’d probably conjure up an answer including one of the following phrases… ‘Media stuff’, ‘Wining and dining’ or ‘You do that tweeting thing, right?’

If an acquaintance were to enquire as to what you’ve been working on recently, you’d likely witness their eyes glaze over as they politely smile and nod when you attempt to explain – absolutely none the wiser for having asked. Or perhaps even wishing they hadn’t.

If you’re an agency PR you might be lucky enough to be compared to the likes of Mad Men characters – with all that talk of winning clients and working across various accounts you must work in advertising, no?

Indeed, it’s much easier for people to understand the basic principles of marketing, in which there’s something tangible to grasp in the form of paid media, than it is to wrap one’s head around the concept of influence, which is essentially what PR comes down to.

Jean-Louis Gassée distilled it rather well when he said,

“Advertising is saying you’re good. PR is getting someone else to say you’re good.”

Yet how we set about achieving this is still largely misunderstood in the public domain. Of course, there’s a very good reason for this considering our job involves trying to shape public opinion – telling them how we seek to do so might seem like shooting ourselves in the foot.

But if the only portrayal the public see of the profession is that of an unethical, shadowy industry lacking in any sort of integrity and lured by large sums of cash, then that’s only going to fuel these misconceptions further. Not to mention potentially disengage the next generation of communicators.

Of course, this isn’t a new problem for PR. There are many commentators out there who’ve touched on the topic before (Rich Leigh is particularly eloquent in his book on the Myths of PR). But the point I’m trying to get across in this article is that if there’s one good thing to come from the Bell Pottinger scandal, it’s that the current scrutiny on the profession offers us a chance to redress what is an underlying problem.

We know that people fundamentally misunderstand PR. They know very little about the industry or, worse, what they do know is either damnatory or wildly inaccurate. And the irony of this dilemma should not be lost on us.

This is not to say we should mock the satire of a PR firm not being able to protect its own reputation. There are a multitude of fellow practitioners out there who are now out of job. Despite having zero involvement with the Gupta account, they face forever be associated with its negative connotations just by carrying the tarnished Bell Pottinger name on their CV.

However, we do have to ask ourselves how we as PR professionals can allow the broader inaccuracy in the depiction of our industry as a whole to persist, particularly when we’d be forced to take action if the same were true in the reporting of a client.

How we choose to respond is now up to us. It is time we as communicators start communicating what it is we do and why it is we do it. Otherwise the only thing that will stick in the public consciousness is the bad news stories involving our industry.

We spend so long promoting the work of others that we often forget to promote ourselves.

Does PR have a communication problem? Let me know your thoughts in the comments thread below or get in touch via social media. I mean you do that Twitter thingy too, right?

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