I wasn’t planning on commenting on the recent dust-up caused
by CBS commentator Andrew Cohen’s assertion that Scott McClellan’s admission that
he lied during the time he served as White House spokesman somehow translated
to all members of the PR field are liars. Really, I didn’t want to give Cohen any
more attention than he’d already received, as I have a feeling he was
intentionally over the top to generate controversy–not because of some true
sense of outrage. That is a lie of sorts itself, isn’t it?
In his follow up non-apology apology to the nuttiness that
has ensued (complete with an indignant response from PRSA and many PR pros in
the comments section), Cohen quotes a friend of his who states: “In an academic
sense, your hyperbole is inaccurate and therefore, perhaps, unfair. There are
certainly ethical PR folks out there. But, like lawyers and the Fourth Estate,
there have been so many bad actors who for so long have abused the public’s
trust, that the hyperbole pretty accurately represents the feelings of most in
the public, and is sadly not that far from the truth. The PR industry needs to
take some responsibility for this state of affairs (as do lawyers and the
media) and work to restore the public’s faith.”
The PR industry does need to take some responsibility for
the image that’s out there, and maybe it should consider a campaign to improve
the image of the profession. I’d suggest starting with Hollywood and the entertainment
industry. My experience in a PR firm looked absolutely, completely, nothing at
all like that ridiculous Sex and the City character Samantha’s “PR” job. And
yet, this type of party-site scouting is considered by many to be “PR.” (Full
disclosure, I think I’ve watched one full episode of SATC. The few other times
I tried to watch the show it annoyed the heck out of me.) It is event planning and promotion,
which is a small part of some PR work. If Hollywood isn’t confusing PR pros
with party planners, it’s casting them as liars “spinning” stories. These folks
exist too. But again, this isn’t the bulk of PR.
Like lawyers, people love to complain about PR pros until
they need one. (Try handling a major recall effort or crisis situation without
PR counsel if you don’t think anyone could possibly “need” a PR pro.) Any
industry painted with a broad brush calling it dishonest will have people who
take exception to that characterization. For the most part, lawyers seem to
take it in stride. Maybe it’s time for PR to do the same. Hold your head up, do
honest work, don’t lie. With all due respect to Mr. Cohen, I don’t see many
journalists worrying about how the public perceives them–his anecdote about
hand-wringing notwithstanding. If there really are journalists in DC who are “wringing
their hands at their own failures to ferret out McClellan’s lies” they must be
new to the town, and to the profession.
I’m struggling to think of any profession that isn’t at
least in part defined by its worst actors. Examples:
“All politicians are liars.” – I’ve
worked in politics, and have known quite a few on both sides of the aisle that
are true public servants. Many work hard, long hours for low salaries because
they believe they are doing good.
“Teachers get the whole summer off
and don’t work hard.” – Usually said by someone who has zero real contact with
“Retail/fast food is full of
workers who don’t care.” – I’ve worked in retail, and can say that there are many
very hardworking people who do care about what they do. And again, long hours
(most of the time on your feet), and crappy pay.
Oh, and one more:
“Bloggers write their mean and
vitriolic posts hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet from the safe
confines of their basements.” – Obviously this only describes a few (if any)
and yet is the pervasive view of the public.
I guess my point is this: it’s time for PR pros to stop
complaining about how others perceive us, and time to start either doing
something about it, or ignore the criticism and just do good work. It might be
counter-intuitive to a profession that spends its time caring about what people
think, but it’s time to move on.
Isn’t there a proverb that says “to stop swatting flies first
get rid of the garbage?” Self-police more often, and call out the bad actors.
But know and understand that there will always be those that don’t honor the
PRSA’s code of ethics, and that they will be the ones that get the attention.
It’s unfortunate, but a fact, and it’s not just PR that has to deal with this.
Go forth and communicate.