Saturday, May 12, 2007

Image Problem? How does PR look from the outside?

Now, I am not normally one to make assumptions here, but I am sure that most PR consultants are aware of the perception that some members of the public hold toward them.
For those not in the know, we can characterise the way they see practitioners in two easily identifiable individuals:

The Edina Monsoon Consultant: From the BBC comedy from the nineties, “Absolutely Fabulous’. [1]Edina Monsoon is a PR consultant who is fad-follower and fashion victim with highly questionable dress sense. Her alcohol consumption and capacity for outrageous behaviour are surpassed only by the excesses of her best friend, Patsy. She lives off the income generated by her two businesses, Monsoon PR and its TV production arm, Radical TV.

The Charles Prentiss Consultant: Another one from the stable of the BBC (am I seeing some type of pattern here?) with the critically acclaimed ‘Absolute Power’. [2]Charles Prentiss, played quite aptly by Stephen Fry, is a brilliant, soulless, manipulative, Machiavellian. Charles is the puller-of-strings, the king of spin, a liar's liar. He places ludicrous stories in the tabloids, destroys the reputations and careers of his enemies, and makes heroes out of the lowest of the low. It is said that you can't polish a turd but Charles can - and his charges invariably end up the shiniest turds on the block. Such talents could have given him a good career in politics but, as Charles says, he chose public relations because he 'wanted to work where the real power and money lay'.

Obviously, for us in the know, we know that is not the case. Although I am sure we have probably all met consultants such as the aforementioned.

A recent study from the Texas Technology University has delved deep in to society’s thoughts on PR consultants, particularly within the United States. The University, via a telephone survey, collated data and from there, created a standard opinion poll.

Now that the results are in I’m sure you would be shocked to know that the reputation of PR consultants is not considered healthy! The most common complaint is that many consultants are viewed as a paid mouthpiece for particular companies. Thus, the feeling amongst non-PR people is that there is not only a lack of truth preached by consultants; there is also a lack of ethics and morals. But why is this the case?

Firstly there is the Prentiss syndrome. I have named this after our esteemed colleague from the BBC series. It all comes down to stereotypes, about the image portrayed in various media. Let’s look at it this way. What do we think of when we think about Lawyers? Instantly the term Ambulance Chasers springs to mind and images from Ally McBeal and Boston Legal pop in to my head. Having a legal background I can assure you that this stereotype is quite untrue. But does PR suffer from the same stereotypes? Well, to be honest, yes. If all citizens are exposed to are the Charles Prentiss’ of this world (co-incidentally, he is on television at the moment), then that is what they would believe all PR consultants are like.

How can PR consultants change such perceptions? One thing needed is to actually educate people what PR is actually about. One of the major problems is the misperception that people have of PR, often confusing it with marketing and advertising, which also suffer from similar image problems. I believe it is up to national associations to educate the public about the actual role PR plays in society. If the public can be educated in what positive actions PR undertake, then half the battle is won.

I believe it would also be beneficial for PR agencies and consultants to all be registered with their particular state bodies. This is common practice with law firms and practitioners. Eg: All lawyers in Queensland are governed by statutes and rules of the Queensland Law Society. If this were to happen it would make the PRIA Code of Ethics a binding agreement for all individuals practicing public relations and not just members, thus ensuring that any consultant that does not adhere to the Code of Ethics, may face some type of disciplinary hearing.
Although this would be quite difficult to enforce, it would hopefully eliminate any behaviour that would be deemed inappropriate and the Charles Prentiss’ of this world would just be seen on the television!

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