Lord Tim Bell, head of the U.K.-based PR firm Bell Pottinger, thinks public relations has become a “lightning rod of mistrust.”
That’s what he told a crowd gathered in Dubai for the recent International Public Relations Association World Congress and reiterated in an interview
with The Holmes Report
The Holmes Report
asked Lord Bell why he feels PR has reached this dubious plateau. His response is intriguing inasmuch as it provides a nuanced view of a much broader issue afflicting the profession: Its reputation within business and society.
Lord Bell sees “no solution to [the] issue,” of public relations’ reputation challenges, he told The Holmes Report
’s Arun Sudhaman, believing that: “We [have] become the lightning rod for that mistrust. It is something we have to learn to live with. That makes us an easy target for the media.”
Lord Bell would know. As the Public Relations Society of America has pointed out, he and his firm have a way of attracting unwanted attention. Last March, the PRSA wrote in The London Evening Standard
that Lord Bell’s assertion that “everyone is entitled to representation so long as it does not involve doing anything illegal” should be placed in further context—that a PR professional’s work also must not involve doing anything unethical.
Lord Bell landed in hot water in December when his firm was caught in a row over allegations
of surreptitiously editing clients’ Wikipedia entries. The ensuing firestorm
set off a slew of industry handwringing. But in a bit of good news, it also helped bring forward some much-needed dialogue
between public relations professionals and Wikipedians about the practice and ethics of “paid advocates” editing client’s Wikipedia entries
(PRSA is hosting a panel
on the relationship between Wikipedia and public relations professionals at its Digital Impact Conference
, April 2–3, in New York.)
Those issues aside, Lord Bell’s point that the public relations profession has become “the lightning rod for mistrust” is not without merit. But how much of that is the result of Lord Bell and others reaping what they sow, and how much is manufactured by the media and certain interest groups?
On the latter point, PRSA spoke out recently to dispel a myth: that public relations professionals are liars. In an op-ed published in The Guardian
, we responded to previous commentary
media critic Roy Greenslade, in which he asked if journalists have “ever been lied to by a PR?”
In that commentary piece, PRSA Chair and CEO Gerry Corbett acknowledged that, while ethical transgressions do occur, those incidents are isolated. “They do not reflect the vast majority of the profession’s work or its value to society, the business community and, yes, the media,” he stated.
It’s not the first time (and certainly won’t be the last) that PRSA has defended public relations’ reputation
. Unfortunately, it seems this issue comes up often. And many times, it’s like a snowball rolling downhill, involving a snowflake of truth that is magnified into a rapidly growing media avalanche .
Still, that flake of truth merits examination and scrutiny.
In other words, it’s time we take public relations’ reputational and ethics issues seriously
. Otherwise, Lord Bell’s assessment that public relations has become a “lightning rod of mistrust” may seem far more prescient than we’d care to admit.
Keith Trivitt is associate director of public relations at the Public Relations Society of America and editor of the PRSay blog, where this story first appeared.