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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
What's the point of PR?
We Love You Sophie banner from royal wedding
Happier times - and great PR - a royal wedding snapshot
The "Sophiegate" saga has hurt a few reputations, including that of the public relations industry. But what is PR all about? And why do people sneer at it?

Sophie Wessex
Sophie Wessex and business partner Murray Harkin
Public relations, the chosen profession - or trade? - of Sophie Wessex, is seen by many as a poor relation to the worlds of advertising and journalism. Yet it wields increasing influence and every year thousands of graduates try to break into it.

The job covers a wide array of tasks, including answering press queries, writing press releases, articles and direct mail handouts, working out presentation strategies, setting up conferences and exhibitions, and producing companies' in-house publications.

The Institute of Public Relations defines the industry's role as establishing and maintaining "mutual understanding and goodwill between an organisation and its publics".

Max Clifford
Max Clifford, often described as PR guru.
One old hand however accepts the irony that people have a distorted view of what PR is about, saying: "I think it's true that the man on the street thinks PR is about wining and dining journalists, and in point of fact it's not. It's about the management of reputation."

But why does it have a poor image? One reason might be that it's hard to point to anything PR actually produces. There's no product - no widget, if you like - to hold at the end of the day.

A survey by the PR Consultants' Association in 1999 found nearly 40% of articles reported the industry in a negative light. It found a range of perceptions in the public mind, including

  • "manipulative"
  • "concealing / hiding truths"
  • "black art / mysterious", and
  • "fluffy".
This is to say nothing of the whole discredited world of spin doctoring.

Alastair Campbell
Has spin doctoring given PR a bad name?
The PR industry attempts to maintain a strict professional code, which includes an emphasis on telling the truth at all times and having honest regard for the public interest.

But these principles go hand-in-hand with common sense, according to one lecturer in PR. "I always tell my students not to argue with - let alone lie to - people who buy ink in barrels," he says.

One reason the growth of PR has been so dramatic in recent years, to the point where few companies (and even charities) seem to be able to exist without their own PR officers, is the changing nature of the media.

In a world where even the under-fives have brand awareness, image can make or break whole enterprises. Just ask the Dome, Skoda, Marks and Spencer, Yahoo!, or Gerald Ratner how important image can be. Even the Freemasons have seen the PR light.

Joanna Lumley in AbFab
PR too fluffy - and too bubbly?
And although dealing with the media can be a treacherous business, as the fake sheikh saga shows, PR seems very often to have its desired result. One national newspaper estimated about 60% of its stories had been handled by PR at one point or another.

Yet antipathy towards PR is not new - the late poet laureate John Betjeman wrote the poem Executive about a "P.R.O." (as PR people were known in those days), characterising his working day as: "Essentially, I integrate the current export drive/ And basically I'm viable from 10 o'clock till five."

A gentle, yet devastating, satire which Betjeman did so well. But even today if you were to ask a random person to name someone who works in PR, who would they say? Edina and Patsy? Max Clifford? Matthew Freud perhaps?

One PR tried to set the record straight, the PRCA report found, by saying: "The stereotype of a PR person remains that of a smiling glad-hander, doling out drinks with one hand and first-class tickets to exotic jaunts with the other. In fact, the best form of public relations is quite distant from the Ab Fab image: less glamorous, more subtle and a great deal more difficult."


Your comments:

If the whole point of PR is to maintain image/reputation - how come the image of PR is so bad? Can they not turn their talents to their own benefit?
Fiona, UK

I have first-hand experience dealing with PR practitioners in the media, and I feel it is very much a sign of the times when no-one is very interested in the content or import of the message; it's all about style and packaging.
PJ Simmons, UK

In my (quite wide) experience, a heck of a lot of PR actually IS about handing out drinks and plane tickets to the press. Currently I am an information officer with the UN. In the press relations aspect of my work, I am not allowed to hand out lunch, drinks or plane tickets but I still seem to get the job done. Nevertheless, I remember with pleasure my days as an international journalist being gladhanded, wined and dined and flown all over the world by the PR industry.
David Short, Angola

This article says that PR's poor image is down to the fact that it produces nothing. What about newspapers and magazines? Most of what you read is a direct result of a press release written by a PR. Surely part of the media's dislike of PR is down to the fact that journalists don't like to admit that they don't do it all themselves.
J Wilsden, England

The fact that you are even discussing these wastes of space proves what a sad world the media lives in.
Brian, IOM

It is interesting that people are prepared to criticise the PR industry, while at the same time admitting that they do not understand what it involves.
C Harvey, UK

From my experience it seems that most people assume that PR and its related industries are populated by the terribly wealthy and workshy. If only that stereotype were true.
Adam Waller, UK

The biggest problem is that PR is intangible. People simply do not realise what PR people do and how they do it and have negative connotations of the whole thing. To do it well you have to have an increasing array of skills and expertise. People simply do not realise that PR people are experts and professionals. It is very easy to make vital, damaging mistakes which destroy reputations.
Oliver Coleman, UK

Enjoying a quiet drink with certain members of the PR profession, we came up with the absolute minimum definition of a PR job role - The ability to lie about your employer with conviction.
Stuart Vine, UK

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