PR Industry Must Embrace Integrity to Boost Reputation

A new Gallup poll shows the reputation of the PR and advertising industry just above drug companies and below oil and gas companies. It will take a strong dose of integrity for communicators to elevate public trust in what they do.

A new Gallup poll shows the reputation of the PR and advertising industry just above drug companies and below oil and gas companies. It will take a strong dose of integrity for communicators to elevate public trust in what they do.

A new Gallup poll reveals the reputation of the public relations and advertising industry is just a nudge above the reputations of drug companies, healthcare organizations and the federal government. It ranks lower than the oil and gas industry and lawyers.

PR professionals are seen by many as flacks, spin doctors and fixers, not as trusted communicators, honest brokers and problem-solvers. TV portrayals of PR professionals feed the negative stereotype of the industry. The performance of recent presidential press secretaries hasn’t helped.

PR Week addresses the reputation issue in a recent blog that quoted Kim Sample, president of the PR Council. "It should be our moment in the sun, but we don’t grab it. We believe PR can solve the world’s biggest problems, and we need to talk about that more. The council has to take some responsibility and work to set the record straight on the good the industry does."

Talking about the good work PR professionals perform in support of critical social causes won’t be enough to overcome perceptions that some – and certainly too much – PR fudges the truth.

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It would help if the PR industry talked more about its Code of Ethics and policed its own ranks when there are cases of misconduct such as intentional inaccuracy, misleading claims and faithless public responsibility. It also would help if the PR industry demanded authenticity and verification as steps to greater public trust.

The Code, maintained by the Public Relations Society of America, says in part: “We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate. We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” Action, of course, speaks louder than words. 

The perception of PR and advertising isn’t all bad. The poll shows 34 percent of respondents hold a negative view of the industry compared to 33 percent with a positive view and 32 percent with a neutral view. The problem isn’t just the -1 percent net negative perception. The problem is a general lack of trust for an industry that is evolving into one of the major sources of information for the public.

Current data suggests there are now six PR professionals for every journalist. Spoon-fed public releases and manicured public statements have become staples in news coverage for reporters who lack the time, resources and editorial support to dig into stories independently. 

As news operations continue to shrink, this dynamic will increase, not decrease. That puts even greater responsibility on the PR industry to act in the greater public interest, which can include standing up to clients who push to trim the truth or whitewash the facts.

Persistent attacks about – and by – “fake news” have contributed to growing public suspicion and sent more people scurrying to their comfort bubbles to get “information.” PR and advertising professionals must be mindful of this trend and avoid exacerbating polarization as they target audiences with messaging. Legitimate PR and advertising firms also must distinguish themselves from real “fake news” sources.

Integrity in communications and advocacy is the key to regaining public trust. Without integrity, the PR and advertising industry will continue to wallow on the bottom of the industrial reputation ranks.

Integrity requires more than doing your own job. It also requires calling out bad actors. The public will notice when the PR profession points the finger at dissembling, disinformation and fact-denial. PR pros need to get out of their own comfort zones and look at the larger picture of their profession and look at their responsibility to the public.

Where the PR and advertising industry rank on an annual poll is irrelevant to where the industry ranks in the minds of the general, news-consuming public. It’s never too early to make a positive impression.

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Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.