“If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget I’d spend it on PR!” – Philanthropist Bill Gates
“Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms.” – Novelist and former PR man Alan Harrington
Discussing reputation management in the classroom is always interesting, especially when we create lists of organizations and individuals with poor public images. From Wal-Mart to Kanye, we have lively conversations about bad reputations and how to repair them.
However, as we consider those with PR challenges, we should point to the PR profession itself. Public relations practitioners are often disparaged and misunderstood. Journalists have been historically critical; many see their own motives as pure while PR people work the “dark side.” Journalist and novelist George Orwell famously wrote, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” American Revolution writer Thomas Paine called publicity “a black art,” even while using early PR methods to influence public opinion in support of anti-British sentiments. Sci-fi writer Graham Diamond said, “PR is…learning to psychologically manipulate…It’s devious exploitation, taking advantage of the human psyche.”
But like Bill Gates, others view PR as an essential and noble profession. “Public relations (is) a key component of any operation in this day of instant communications and rightly inquisitive citizens,” American Express founder Alvin Adams wrote 100 years ago. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson exclaimed, “Publicity is absolutely critical. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.” Charles Evan Hughes, a Supreme Court Chief Justice, New York Governor, Secretary of State, and Republican presidential candidate, noted, “Publicity is a great purifier because it sets in action the forces of public opinion, and in this country public opinion controls the courses of the nation.”
Despite the welcomed praise, PR practitioners often feel the sting of a poor public image. We’ve been called “spin doctors,” “flacks” and “propagandists.” Perhaps the profession could use a reputation management campaign of its own. But how would you change attitudes about PR? Your thoughts?