Monday, February 4, 2013

That's not PR

The legitimate, ethical profession of public relations continues to be under attack. 

And PR pros are to blame.

We don't do a good enough job of describing what "good" PR is. We don't insist on the proper definition of public relations.  We don't give names to things other than legitimate PR.

Take, for example, a column by one of my favorites - Steve Lopez.  In the latest sad chapter of a few bad priests molesting boys and the Cardinal who should have done more to protect the boys, Lopez writes that the Cardinal went into "full PR mode" to "spin" his side of the story.

I get that reporters and columnists sometimes "feel" like they are being "spun" by sources. But what the Cardinal was doing was not "PR" but laying out a defense, more like an attorney would on behalf of a client.

Time and time again, public relations professionals insist that when we offer "the other side" of the story - with facts - we are not attempting to "spin" someone but merely provide reporters with additional detail and another view of the story.  Too often, reporters call a few minutes before deadline wanting a response to a serious allegation or charge or incident.  The story, by then, is essentially written and we're left with no chance to change the direction of the piece through thoughtful dialogue with a reporter. 

It's easy - dare I say, lazy journalism - to infuse a story with "action" words like "PR" and "spin" because by now everyone seems to believe the first is a terrible thing and the second is always associated with the first.

I'm too much of a realist to know that we won't change this over night.  (We'll get accused of trying to spin a reporter with PR just trying to bring this up!)

Yet, we must do more to define the "good" and legitimate PR that goes on everyday and is routinely enjoyed and accepted by the news media from the "other" stuff that may resemble PR, but need a different definition.

It's about separation.

This is an ongoing dilemma - as I recall several blogs (one of my favorites was when the SpinSucks blog began) that have dealt with this topic for years.

However, we PR pros must do a better job of defining what PR really is and give reporters and columnists better, alternative inflammatory language to describe stuff that may sound like PR but is something else.   The vacuum we leave behind for journalists - by not offering alternative descriptions to actions that are not ethical or credible - perpetuates the problem.

In the case of the Cardinal, it may be better to describe "his attempts to defend his reputation." He went into "defense" mode or tried to "engineer" a better image for himself.  I would (maybe I will) offer the columnist a clear understanding that public relations - by its very definition and meaning to companies, associations and individuals - can only survive if its credible and ethical.

It also comes down to how we treat reporters and other journalists.  I can't tell you how many times I have run into a journalist who felt "burned" or "spun" by a public relations person or publicist. As a former journalist, I usually can provide some credibility and trust.  ("Look, I was a journalist not too long ago, so I promise I won't spin you.")  Once you get reporters to realize you are more of an asset to them and that you are not going to "spin" them but provide reports, facts, access, details and other considerations that may be fruitful to their story, you are halfway there.

As professional, ethical PR professionals, we certainly must represent our clients and companies.

We also must defend our profession.

So, when a column incorrectly says that someone is going into "PR mode" to try to deflect criticism or otherwise paint an inaccurate picture of themselves or their organization - tell the reporter THAT is not PR because it's not credible or ethical. Tell them that "PR" does not equate deceit or misdirection.  Tell them to use better language to describe actions that have no resemblance to ethical, credible communications.

Yeah, even when a priest is involved.

NEXT: When someone has "PR problem on their hands."    

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