The recent article “True Enough: The Second Age of PR
” in the May/June issue of Columbia Journalism Review
(and co-published by ProPublica
) is a surprisingly fair portrayal of the public relations industry from journalists who usually focus on the negative and the past.
It was nice to see, for example, a mention of Ivy Lee, instead of the usual easy target of Edward Bernays, long vilified as the “father of spin” because of his association with propaganda.
When articles on PR delve into the past, I wish they would pay some attention to Arthur Page, who was vice president of public relations at AT&T in 1927, and whose legacy of ethical PR as a management counseling function continues today at the Arthur W. Page Society
However, I do take issue with the article’s assertion that PR people “outnumber” journalists in the sense that not all PR people do media relations and publicity exclusively. The field is much broader and, as the article points out, often involves events and other direct communication with key audiences.
It's also important to recognize that while some PR professionals may misinform the public, this is not the standard or accepted practice.
Like any profession, PR has its bad practitioners. But more often than not, particularly in politics, “spin” is perpetuated by people who do not have a degree in PR, and are not members of PRSA and aware of its ethics code, and therefore should not be considered exemplary of PR as commonly practiced.
In fact, it’s a bit ironic to read journalists’ complaints with PR when so many in public relations came from journalism. For example, in Woody Klein’s book All the President’s Spokesmen
, it becomes clear that the overwhelming majority of presidential press secretaries—from Stephen Early working for Franklin Roosevelt up to the present—have been former journalists.
Meanwhile, portrayals of PR rarely give credit where it is due to the profession.
article, and others about PR, love to point to Wendell Potter, a former vice president of corporate communications for CIGNA health insurance company. Potter blew the whistle on the insurance interest’s communication misdeeds, as an example of all that is wrong with PR.
These articles fail to mention that Potter was praised by the PR community, from being applauded at the PRSA Conference in San Diego to being featured in PR trades as a cautionary tale about ethics.
Finally, while criticisms of the PR profession are important for the purpose of continual improvement, it should also be noted that PR professionals contribute positively to democracy by enabling informed decision making. That's because journalists don't have the capacity to report everything, and they too can get things wrong.
The companion complaint to PR people putting out too much information is that they are silent. Journalists and the public should be grateful that most PR professionals are counseling management to be transparent and accountable in their public communication. A little honesty from journalists on that point would be an improvement over perpetuating the negative stereotype of the profession.
Tim Penning, PhD, APR, is associate professor in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University.