PR is dead or Long live PR?

The poor reputation of PR has long been its source of angst. Recently the actions of Ketchum and the Armstrong Williams ‘Pay for Play’ case have once again brought it ill-repute and embarrassment. It’s not a high point for the industry and much wringing of hands and navel-gazing has ensued.

For those involved in that debacle, then some introspection and questioning of ethics is certainly due. But I’d argue that the very shock that this has caused is proof that PR is held in firm regard. Were this a mundane, daily episode it would not be news. The hiatus it has caused is, in part, proof that it’s an exception. The day that police corruption, clergy misdemeanors or political malfeasance stops being news is the day that industry has lost its respect. If the Armstrong Williams episode proves anything, it is that we’re far from that. PR’s reputation is not yet from dead.

My personal view is that good PR people are fundamentally insecure. They may act with confidence, be decisive and insightful, but the driving force which makes a good communicator is that constant, nagging sense of insecurity which drives them to improve and do better. If you are insecure, you are never satisfied with your own performance and you improve. I don’t mean vanity – though we have all met plenty of vain PR types – I mean a sense of professional pride.

But the downside of that insecurity is a tendency to corrupting self-doubt. Hence a ‘woe is me’ reaction to criticism. That Ketchum made a fundamental error of judgment does not mean that the whole industry is undermined, rotten or unethical. It doesn’t even mean that Ketchum itself is corrupt. Just that certain individuals crossed a line that, in the public glare, they realize should not have been crossed. That does not mean the collapse of PR as we know it.

I was approached by Steven Phenix yesterday (like many in the PR blogosphere) to spring to PR’s defense in the face of this mighty onslaught. While I laud his intentions, am glad he approached me and am pleased to contribute, I don’t feel that PR’s existence or raison d’etre is at stake. PR is necessary. PR is valuable. PR is relevant. What’s more, it’s more relevant, valuable and necessary now than ever before.

In a world where the media can bring swift justice to firms like Andersen Consulting, Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing etc far faster than the legal process, who would be without a defense? Bernie Ebbers is only now facing legal justice, while the media has already tried and sentenced him and his company years ago. PR is both sword and shield. It’s a brave company that denies the increased power of the media and dispenses with its media barristers.

The media landscape is changing no doubt, not least due to the rise of blogging, grassroots journalism and increased transparency. Does that make PR irrelevant? Does it sound its death knell? Or are those communications skills all the more important in an environment where a company becomes more porous, more visible and more open? Where justice is dispensed more rapidly?

The Web is a wonderful editorial medium. It accelerates the transmission of information. It facilitates conversations. I’d argue that PR is all the more necessary as a result. An ability to communicate clearly and effectively can only enhance the conversations which the Web brings about.

So that’s why I’m not gnashing my teeth or pulling out my hair as a result of the recent criticisms. I know that the media (Big and grassroots) is increasingly powerful and that PR has a vital role to play in facilitating the communication companies, organizations and individuals have with their audiences.

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