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.


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.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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 and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.


Going with More than Your Gut

Following your gut instincts is like flying blind when it comes to strategic communications. Research is what makes communications strategic.

Following your gut instincts is like flying blind when it comes to strategic communications. Research is what makes communications strategic.

Many advise to "go with your gut." But when you are preparing to spend millions of dollars on a communications campaign, you want to base your decisions on more than a gut instinct.

Strategic communications isn't strategic unless it is based on solid research. Test those gut instincts and see how they play with the audience you are trying to reach. You may be right. But if you aren't, you have avoided wasting a lot of money, effort and even goodwill.

Research involves a lot more than "testing the winds." That notion trivializes the careful research steps on which successful marketing campaigns are based. What message is most persuasive? Is that message believable? Where will your target audience listen to your message? Who is the best spokesperson for your message?

These aren't the kinds of questions your gut is trained to answer.

Qualitative research can help to refine messages once you have determined the best ones to use. Testing images and phrases can reveal whether what you mean to say comes across to those you want to reach. Often, research suggests different phrasing or use of other images that resonate better with your target audience. The difference can be an ad that works versus one that flops.

Men and women who dream up creative ads often chafe at research that shows their work products miss the mark with the intended audience. Sometimes the people who pay for the ads fall in love with an idea that doesn't connect. They are thinking with their guts, not their heads.

Research is not antithetical to creativity. It just ensures what is creative to the creator is meaningful to the person on the other end of the ad.

When it comes to assessing return on investment, spending  little bit on research can earn dividends by making sure that a bright idea is actually an effective idea. The difference can be measured at the cash register.

Speaking Your Audience's Language

Listening and learning how to speak to your target audience is critical to success. Focus groups can help – a lot.Choosing the right word in an advertisement, direct mail solicitation or advocacy piece can make all the difference. Qualitative research is arguably the best way to inform your word selection.

Creative departments come up with campaign themes, phrases and visuals that can be exciting and evocative. But in the eyes and ears of the intended audience, they can be misunderstood or simply confusing.

If your audience doesn't get your message, that's what should get you excited. Excited enough to find out how they interpret your words and images — and what words and images would convey the message you want to get across to them.

That's a job for focus groups. They provide a place to assess your language from the vantage point of your audience. Sometimes, the meaning of your material is clear with a minor tweak. Other times, your message is muddled by the words and images you select and requires a major makeover.

Ego bruising aside, knowing that your words and visuals connect with your audience is worth the effort. It is definitely worth the expense when compared to the vast sums you could waste on advertising that misses its mark.

Focus groups also can provide clues on choices of spokespersons and communication channels. Your words may be right on, but your spokesperson is a turn off whom people don't trust. You may have the right message, but the wrong channel, where your audience doesn't visit.

Speaking the language of your audience is not a constant thing because language changes. Words that had one meaning decades ago may have a whole new meaning or connotation now. Or a word that once was in favor may be out of favor because of its association with a negative event or personality.

Understanding how your audience talks, especially about you and your products, is critical for you to talk effectively to them. Concentrate on what you mean to say and how to say it. Your words matter.

Let Your Products Do the Talking

The new rules of marketing don't rely on paid media to attract attention, but rather products and services that command attention.

"The new era of modern marketing is about the connection economy," says prominent marketeer Seth Godin. "It's about trust. It's about awareness. It's about the fact that attention is worth way more than it used to be."

In an interview with Inc., Godin says the success of companies such as Airbnb and Lululemon shows that the market decides what is important, not the companies that make and sell things. "They make something the market wants to talk about," he explains. Marketers don't have to invent a way to spark a conversation about them because the conversation is already under way.

"The first thing is that they need to embrace the weird," Godin told Inc. "Instead of thinking, 'What do the masses want?' they need to think about what the people who care want. The masses aren't listening because they have so many choices. The people who care are going to choose to listen. And by appealing to the people who care, it is way more likely the company will be talked about."

PR Upswing Keys Integrated Solutions

A reputable study says private and nonprofit organizations are using social media more and relying on public relations professionals to assist them. Nonprofits rely on social media more heavily than private businesses because it is more cost-efficient than paid media.

These findings come from the seventh biennial Generally Accepted Practices report on PR, produced by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The report marked huge increases in Facebook, Twitter, blogs and online video since 2009, when the last study was conducted. More energy is being devoted to search engine optimization and less to wikis and virtual worlds.

One of the most striking findings is that business and nonprofit executives view social media as the domain of PR professionals who generate content. But increasingly, executives also believe PR pros should take charge of messaging for customer relations and internal communications.

Increasing numbers of PR professionals have a seat at the table of top executives in their organizations, which translates into communications strategies becoming a more critical part of overall strategy. As consumers demand a larger voice in brand decisions, organizations have turned to PR professionals to make effective connections.

The bad news for PR firms is that corporations are discarding the concept of "agency of record." The percentage of companies with a single PR firm fell from 58 percent in 2002 to 18 percent for private companies and even lower, 15 percent, at public companies.

Despite the reliance on PR to manage social media and brand conversations, PR budgets are up only slightly, according to the report. Flat budgets may not be cause for a party, but they are better than plunging advertising budgets, which have shuttered some agencies. In-house marketing departments also have suffered declines.