Is the PR industry having an identity crisis?

Regardless of whether you work in the world of PR, it’s been impossible to miss the headlines about Bell Pottinger this month.

To no-one’s surprise, the PR industry has leapt to its own defence and damned Bell Pottinger as a bad apple. Yet those publicly condemning its actions in South Africa, including PR’s own industry body, the PRCA, are being called out as hypocrites. One critic writing on Politico went so far as to say, “they look like a bunch of pimps throwing up their hands in horror at the moral turpitude of their highest-earning whore.”

The problem boils down to the fact that PR has a reputation issue. This is not news and shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone with PR experience. But what is interesting is that the issue stems from the fact that PR encompasses a huge variety of approaches, practices and types of agency.

This has created a strange dichotomy wherein criticism of PR falls into one of two distinct camps. On the one hand, there is what I like to call ‘the Ab Fab argument’; that PR is fluffy nonsense, requires no skill and is solely practised by champagne-swilling luvvies. On the other hand we have ‘the suspicion of spin’, which positions PR as a malicious industry, occupied by immoral money grabbers who set out to manipulate the vulnerable.

Of course, very few agencies neatly fall into one of these camps. Many appear somewhere on the spectrum between fluffy and evil, but many more take their commitment to quality and honesty very seriously. This is not just because the PRCA’s code of conduct dictates that they must do so, but because they truly want to.

As a small B2B agency working in a relatively niche area (the built environment for those not in the know), it makes good business sense for us to have integrity. And what’s more, operating any other way would fundamentally clash with our values.

But while agencies can strive to be valourous themselves, they also need to ensure that they keep their clients honest; helping them to celebrate their achievements and showcasing their expertise, but also addressing issues when they arise with haste and transparency.

I really do hope that Bell Pottinger’s demise (as reported in PRWeek 07/09/17) doesn’t tarnish the already reputationally-confused name of PR. This whole incident has thrown PR’s reputation into the spotlight and should be a wake-up call for those agencies whose approaches are, let’s say, morally ambiguous. If one of the top 20 UK agencies can be toppled so quickly, then no-one can afford to be complacent.

When done well, PR should act as a sounding board for organisations who are often too internally focused to have a realistic idea of how they are perceived by the world. Ask any journalist and they will (perhaps grudgingly) tell you how crucial PR is to their job. Newspapers, magazines, radio programmes, website and TV shows would be sparsely populated indeed without the input of PR, providing quality content for the right audience at the right time.

PR’s raison d’etre is far from dead (you can watch our video on this here) but as an industry, it may be time to close ranks against those agencies who give us a bad name.

By Cathy Hayward, managing director at Magenta Associates

Ben Keeley