How to end all of the confusion surrounding PR

Posted on: 2013-06-14 in Opinion   |   Tagged: perceptions of pr pr agencies what is pr

Jim Beckham (@JimBeckham) asks what PR has done to deserve all this negativity and misperception.

Is it just me or is the PR industry going through a bit of an identity crisis? Most of the people I’ve met in my relatively short time working in PR have at one point or another aired frustration at friends, family or some chap they bumped into down the pub called Bernard being unable to understand what it is we actually do for a living.

Frequently statements like “oh it’s a bit like marketing then?” or “so you tell journalists what to write?” grace our ears. My own mother used the phrase “spread bullshit” once (although to be fair we’re from Suffolk so it could have been in reference to that week’s muck spraying).

The fact is that the work of a typical PRO covers a number of different sectors – from marketing to crisis communications, social media to SEO – and the results of their efforts are sometimes difficult to justify. But it’s amazing that for an industry where communicating effectively is its bread and butter, public perception of PR is still rife with misconceptions.

What exactly is PR?

We recently commissioned a survey asking members of the public to describe what they know about PR. The general consensus saw it as having more in common with marketing and advertising than arguably the industry’s preferred choices of communications, crisis management and thought leadership.

Perhaps most disturbingly though was the air of negativity projected towards the profession by a considerable proportion of respondents. Activities such as “drinking” and “partying” made their usual appearances, but it was statements such as “they spread lies to the news” and “they provide nothing to help the economy” that made me want to understand where this public perception is coming from.

PR stereotypes

Perhaps two of the most well known fictional PR figures are from the TV comedies Absolutely Fabulous and Twenty Twelve. There must be a reason why these stereotypes have proved so popular and why they induce so much laughter about a profession that many people (and I’d have to include myself in this category a few years ago) don’t really understand fully.  

If we compare Jennifer Saunders’ Edina Monsoon (in the video above) to Jessica Hynes’ Siobhan Sharpe (in the video below) we can see how PR (or at least the public's perception of it) has changed in the past two decades: the drink and drug induced parties and schmoozing have been replaced with digital strategies that focus on app downloads and social shares.

However, underlying both characters is the idea that neither really know what they’re talking about and hide behind buzzwords and clever sounding language.

Where did this stereotype come from?

Having worked my way through the websites of PR Week’s Top 150 agencies, it’s clear where this idea originated. Jargon has spread like a virus throughout PR and in my opinion it’s the primary reason for all of this mockery and negativity. It’s why Twitter accounts like @PRWankery and @PitchAintOne have so much content to draw from, why journalists continually complain that the majority of press releases aren’t real stories and why agencies (like 1238, sparkPR or Mule Design) feel the need to produce jargon-busting guides and surveys into the most hated PR phrases.

If PR jargon is to be believed, we’re living in an engagement era, one where “dialoguing” with tier one media channels is essential to navigate a world demanding unprecedented authenticity and transparency. We leverage the clients’ brand image, focussing on its core strengths to target the key demographics as effectively as possible. We measure our key metrics through Trust Barometers and utilise the latest tools to offer a social proposition that shows real value.

Communication is supposed to be what PROs do best and yet paragraphs like the one above (which is an amalgamation – sorry, collection – of genuine phrases I pulled off some of the websites of top PR agencies) do little more than confirm the stereotype of PR that everyone has already seen on their TV screens.

Now not all agencies are guilty of this, Grayling, for instance, does a nice job of laying out its offering in easy to understand terms. But then there are releases like this one from Fleishman Hillard, that make my skin crawl. A company rebranding rarely makes engaging news, but to promote that news through language like in the example below just reinforces the stereotype that PR is all style and no substance.

FH Jargon

In many ways, the PR industry is hazard to itself – a sector of communications professionals, a large proportion of whom are unable to communicate their own activities effectively enough for the normal person to understand. I honestly think that something will have to give soon: perhaps journalists will stop using press releases that aren’t written in plain English, or maybe the agencies that adopt early and make speaking sense a priority will have such success that everyone else will follow suit.

But as I said at the beginning of this post, I’m still relatively new to the PR world and was very much an outsider to it beforehand. So if you think I’m speaking in line with the brand or that I’m shooting way off-target, why not engage and join the thought shower by leaving a comment below?

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About this blog


The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog is managed by B2B PR specialist Heather Baker, founder TopLine Comms, an inbound marketingB2B content marketing agency and proud HubSpot partner agency and takes contribution from anyone sensible in the industry with something intelligent to say.  Follow Heather on Twitter @TopLineFounder or contact the B2B PR Blog editorial team via email on [email protected].


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