Monday, February 2, 2009

The PR Industry: Trusted business advisors or glorified party planners?


A few days ago, I found myself in a good discussion with my PR colleague Allan Schoenberg around the legitmacy of public relations as an industry. Allan was lamenting that yet another network TV series this winter may portray the PR profession in a somewhat negative light. I immediately responded by saying this has been going on for years (Sex in the City, Spin, PoweR Girls, for example) and that it doesn't help our cause as we fight the good fight for a seat at the proverbial "table." 

Allan's response surprised me: "I actually think shows like Sex in the City legitimize the PR industry by highlighting it in a very public way" (I'm summarizing--Allan, correct me if I'm wrong). 

Hmm...what do you think? See, I tend to think every time one of these shows characterizes a PR professional as a flak or glorified party planner that we lose a little bit of credibility with our clients. They might not come out and say it--heck, they might not be every consciously thinking it. But I think shows like these affect people's perceptions and attitudes toward our industry at the very least. 

Now, I know at the core, we need to earn our client's respect by the work we produce and the counsel we offer day in and day out. That's a given. But, I can't help but wonder if these shows still have a negative impact on an industry that's worked so hard to legitimize itself over the years. 

What do you think? Are we still seen as party planners and spinsters by our clients? Or, are we making progress? Do the clients we work with see us as true advisors and business partners--the same way they do their attorneys and financial counselors? 

Where do you stand?

19 comments:

mengelmusings said...

These portrayals really bug me - and I think moreso being a female. I think these shows oversimplify what PR practitioners really do and never emphasize the complexity and creativity required to be successful. You never saw Samantha in a brainstorming session or giving a presentation or training people to be media spokespersons - only attending parties and taking people out to lunch. That's not what most of us do.

What irks me the most, however, is that it's almost always females in these roles. I understand that PR is a disproportionately female profession, but in my career I've mostly come across smart, dedicated, hard-working females. Not the shallow bimbo types that are so often portrayed as PR pros on TV and film.

@amymengel

storyassistant said...

This is a very interesting conversation about the image of the PR profession. I think you have to take the TV shows and movies with a grain of salt. You see every profession glorified or stereotyped in each (lawyers, sports agents, doctors, stock brokers, etc.).

I've said this before but there is a part of me that believes most folks in PR are appropriately labled "flacks." Before you claim that I'm generalizing, take a step back and look at the industry you're a part of...assuming your in PR: 1) "most" PR firms put their least experienced professionals on the front lines managing their client's reputation with the media (mistake); 2) "most" PR professionals continue to blast media in hopes that something will stick (mistake); 3) "most" PR professionals put their client's needs first...instead of the media (mistake).

Do I think these stereotypes are right and justified? Probably not, but that's what keeps me trying to change that image and take out my competition:).

Arik, great topic!

The Sports Ace said...

I think that this public perception of PR can work against real-world professionals in two ways.

First, I think it creates a false image of the industry for those who don't live in it every day, namely students with ambitions to enter the field. Shows like SATC and that one on MTV were highly watched and aired through media popular with the younger age groups. So when those students go to their info interviews, internships or first jobs, they aren't as prepared to succeed as they might have been with a different industry image in their mind. This, of course, may have long-term implications on the pool of talent in our business.

Also, along the lines of my first point, this misconception of PR also can manifest itself in managers who oversee but don't practice PR on a daily basis. Particularly with companies who haven't done PR well, or at all, management doesn't know the true value that PR can add and role it can play in their businesses. So, when we work with these people and companies, our jobs are that much tougher because we have to educate along the way and relate our work to a false idea of what PR should be...or worse yet, act in ways that support that idea at the expense of what we believe is in the best interests of the company.

That said, I think we have opportunities every day to do right by our companies and clients and bring the real value of PR to the table. Remember, the best things in life are never easy!

RockstarJen said...

Movies, schmovies. I've seen the recurring "publicist" role on TV and movies, and it's funny. Yes, there is some confusion. Every once in awhile I get a "oh, so you're Samantha Jones!", but in jest.

There's a difference between PR and publicity to start, and even there we can branch out more. The new show Lipstick Jungle has a great character (played by Rosie Perez) that shows the PR person as pushy and "fabulous", but definitely knows how to get the job done.

Like every walk of life, entertainment portrays it for entertainment. Can you imagine how boring the PR character would be if s/he did what we really do ever day?

I say the biggest challenge is still getting the average joe to get it. I can explain my craft to people, but all they hear is "I write press releases." And even that results in "But, what does that means?"

We can relish in our shroud of mystery. ;)

David Mullen said...

Good points by Jen (as usual).

Here's my take on shows like that. They do raise the profile of the words "Public Relations," but it does more harm that good for several reasons, many that have been noted already by The Sports Ace in the comment above.

Here's the one I'd add though...

I think it has contributed to the decline in young men entering in or interested in public relations. Most men don't want to plan parties for a living. They want a seat at the big table, so they major in marketing instead.

After hearing that I'm in PR, more than a handful of guys I've met along the way who are in different fields have responded with something along the lines of "isn't that a woman's job?" or "You plan parties?" When I ask what gives them that impression, the answer has usually been something like "I don't know. On TV it's always women and they're planning parties."

I'm sure that's not the only thing that's led to the decline in men entering the field, but I do believe it's contributed.

cubanalaf said...

Great post, Arik. Three different things I want to comment on, just from reading the post and the comments given:

1. As women, we still tend to have more hurdles then men do when it comes to the professional world. Society as a whole is changing and much more accepting of women more so than even 10 years ago, but the good ol' boys are still there, and still running corporations - and this is a field where the women are the majority. To be honest, I'm not sure how many people would actually watch Sex and the City if Samantha did what most PR people do - it might not seem as "exciting" to the producers and writers of the show. They want to show the parties, they want to show the glamor. (Jen summed this up perfectly)

2. I have spoken to many classes since I graduated, and I have started seeing a trend since even I was in school - the quality of people who want to enter the profession has degraded, as well as their perception of it. They don't understand why they have to take news writing classes, or the grammar, spelling and punctuation test that the J-school gives to anyone intending to be a major. I bluntly told them that if they think its all parties and high heels, they don't need to disgrace the profession and go into a fashion major. Whenever I speak about my experience, I usually leave out the gig I did with 20th Century Fox - because it was more on the parties/publicity side. They seem to be awed by that, and I don't understand.

3. I am inclined to believe that this mindset is also pushed by the actual journalism school, as it is mostly run by the news reporting types who don't like PR people and think we are fluffy. It is very difficult to break habits, and that habit is how the media portrays PR folks.

Just some thoughts. I by no means want to blame my generation for some of these misconceptions, but there are a lot more of those that are influenced by these same TV shows than there used to be. Great post!

Lauren
@CubanaLAF

Allan said...

Arik -- Indeed it was a good conversation (like all of our conversations). I guess I always like to be a devil's advocate (that is part of what we do in PR after all). As a point of clarification and so all of your readers don't mock me; I never said I "liked" the portrayals. In fact, they can be so far off the mark that it borders on irresponsible. What I do like about PR being portrayed more in movies/TV shows is that they create a dialogue about our profession -- like this blog posting. I also believe that the more PR is discussed and portrayed in the media the more it helps to give credence that our industry matters – if it didn’t no one would even consider using the profession (Samantha could have been any number of consultants). The question should now move from not do we like these interpretations of our jobs, but what can we do about it? The move to more advanced degrees helps; the move to call out others for their missteps helps; the move to focusing on communicating our organization’s values – rather than focusing on tactics – helps. I think we also need to keep in mind that we’re not the only profession to feel this way – look at the all ridiculous depictions of lawyers, doctors, CEOs, regulators, etc. As always, this is a good topic/discussion that needs to continue for the profession to advance.

jaywalk1 said...

Arik, interesting and important post. I don't think shows like the ones mentioned above hurt our reputation with clients. They've worked with firms before and know that both what they're looking for and what we provide are very different from what they see on television.

Where I really think we take a hit is with the generations to come. I bet that many of high school age probably watch these shows and begin to think that that is all there is to PR. These shows could be turning off the idea of a career in PR for a lot of them.

James
@jaywalk1

jaywalk1 said...

Arik, interesting and important post. I don't think shows like the ones mentioned above hurt our reputation with clients. They've worked with firms before and know that both what they're looking for and what we provide are very different from what they see on television.

Where I really think we take a hit is with the generations to come. I bet that many of high school age probably watch these shows and begin to think that that is all there is to PR. These shows could be turning off the idea of a career in PR for a lot of them.

James
@jaywalk1

Heather Schwartz, APR said...

This is such a great topic of discussion – one that I often share with friends within the industry. First of all, I think we need to look at the facet within in the PR industry these programs are attempting to portray, publicists. I think we can all agree there is a distinct difference between the function of a publicist and an actually PR practitioner. I mean Lipstick Jungle, Sex and the City and Phone Booth are all representations of publicists.

Now I have a ton of friends in NY and LA who are astounding publicists. I mean handling certain celebs, which shall remain nameless, is not easy. But they would be the first to agree our jobs differ on a mass scale.

I think we can all agree as a profession that the role of the PR practitioner has shifted dramatically. No longer are we just dealing with media, we are seen as stewards of brands and integrated marketers. We, as a profession, need to get back to the foundation of what PT Barnum and Edward Bernays championed long ago.

Public relations is about relationships. It is about an organization and its publics adapting mutually to each other.
But the one positive these types of shows and movies have done, is bring public relations to the masses. It allows us to go in and dispel those misunderstandings and misconceptions.

I certainly think we are making progress and headway regarding the utility of this profession. But I also think we need to look to an organization like PRSA, which nationally isn’t helping our profession as much as they should – but this is another conversation for another time. But PRSA should be advocating for the profession and helping organizations understand the power of PR. I think it’s also time we come together with marketers, advertisers and communicators to work together. It ‘s time we share our toys and play in the sandbox together.

But I also think we as professionals cannot knock what an event planner does, look at Geri Wolf or Paul Ridgeway, they are event masters. This is a craft that takes imagination and skill. So please let’s not all just fall in line and knock that profession.
@prchck123

Kasey Skala said...

I think shows like these present a great opportunity for us to educate others about what PR really entails. I think it's along the lines of doctors and lawyers. If someone said they were a plastic surgeon, the first thing that comes to mind if what Hollywood has portrayed. However, sit down and speak with a plastic surgeon and you find out it's more than enhancements.

Sure it would be better if these shows weren't on or if they were portraying the PR industry properly. But I also think it gives us the opportunity to filter out the negatives and focus on promoting the positives.

jbhmarketing said...

I agree that television has an impact on all of us, and not always in a good way.

But television seeks the value in entertainment versus reality. It also often portrays lawyers as greedy, doctors as rich and stay-at-home moms as practically worthless. It also likes to tell us that we must have a glass of wine several times a day to relax and fit in.

Although it doesn't make it true, it can impact our young people (in particular) in a negative fashion, like anything else can.

This makes our job for recruitment and mentoring a little more difficult, perhaps. But there is value in arguing the point and educating otherwise. Somewhere along the line (hopefully before residency), doctors-in-training realize that not all doctors live in the Hollywood Hills and also own three other homes. And it can be the same with up-and-coming PR folks.

Kudos to you and all those here who are seeking to change the direction of the wave.

@juliebonnheath

Arik C. Hanson, APR said...

Sorry I'm late to respond--dealing with a sick child most of the day.

Amy/David--I think you both touched on a very interesting point: the gender conversation. On both sides. I plan to explore this issue in a future post based on a discussion I'm leading at the U of M next week around this very topic. More to come.

Matt--Very interesting take. I'm inclined to agree with you on the large agency front. But, that said, I'm not sure I'm comfortable saying "most" PR firms employ that approach. I think we're really just talking about some of the larger firms (and even some of them don't go this way) and a handful of the small "pitch shops." But, we were labeled "flaks" for a reason, right?

Jason--You outline my thoughts exactly. Opportunity my friend, opportunity.

Jen--"Relish in our shroud of mystery"-love that. Hmm..you may have a solid point there. And yes, if they created a show that featured Shia LeBouf playing David Mullen (you don't see the resemblance?) as he sits in meetings, develops PR plans and pitches a few reporters each day, yes, I may fall asleep quickly. Good point.

Lauren--Interesting point about journalists. Are we just as guilty of portraying negative stereotypes of them? And your take about college students may be justified. I was chatting with a PR colleague a few years ago that was about a year removed from school and she said she actually thought PR pros had "3-martini lunches". Huh? I was speechless--your point exactly.

Allan--My friend, you're right. We do need to take steps to advance the professsion. But, like Heather says, we need help from organizations like PRSA. But, if we all play our role each day, every day with our clients and do one thing to advance the profession with one person, think how big an impact that would make.

Jaywalk--Couldn't agree more. Again, hoping to learn more about the student perspective next week at class.

Heather--Great points, as always. I certainly didn't mean to offend or single out our event planner collegaues. It's certainly not one of my key skill areas and I very much appreciate folks like Paul and Geri for the great work they do. I was merely trying to call out one stereotype that's flung our way--really, it could have been media flak, too.

Kasey--My only issue with comparing PR to other industries is that PR is much "fuzzier" and a much more nebulous term to most than, say, the health care field. Almost everyone has a decent idea about what a physician does every day. Could you say the same about PR? I don't think so.

Heather Schwartz, APR said...

Arik -- totally didn't think you offended. Lord knows I have made the same point in terms of this conversation.

Jillian said...

Great post, Arik. And, as you know, how amazing that shortly after your entry this USA Today book review about the PR industry's negative perception was published: http://www.usatoday.com/money/books/2009-02-10-pr-book_N.htm.

My two cents: I think public relations courses need to be taught in undergraduate business schools to help demonstrate the value of the profession to influencers in the early stages of their careers. This strategy may also recruit more males to the profession, per David Mullin's feedback.

@JillianF

kinskypr said...

Great point, Jillian. It would be helpful for business majors to have a better grasp on the field.

One other group that may be influenced by these fictional portrayals of PR is journalists. I believe these representations can impact our relationships with members of the media, and I'm afraid they may add to some already existing tensions.

Speaking of journalists, they have had their share of not-so-accurate portrayals. Joe Saltzman at USC Annenberg heads up the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture Project to study this very topic. See http://www.ijpc.org/ (He has expressed interest in posting work about the depiction of PR practitioners, too).

I disagree with those who think our real lives would not be entertaining. The West Wing, for example, showed a little more realistic portrayal -- they were shown writing speeches and even birthday messages, researching, fielding media questions, etc. -- definitely shown working beyond event planning (which is a valid career, too, of course), and the program was very entertaining and successful.

Don't you have plenty of interesting things that happen to you at work during the day or the week? That's one of the great things about our field -- our work has lots of variety, our days are (generally) never the same. I think we're ripe for a reality show that isn't just focused on event planning!

LOVE this topic. Thanks for starting this conversation, Arik!

Heidi said...

I'll admit it: I'm young enough that I didn't even know what PR was until I started watching Sex and the City. With that being said, I didn't enter the PR profession thinking I'd be as glamorous as the girls in New York (We're still in Minnesota here) and I sure didn't expect to throw A-list parties all the time. You don't become a doctor thinking every day will be as exciting as an episode of Grey's and you don't become a PR pro to go to parties and avoid the nuts and bolts of a real job.

I do need to agree with Lauren about the quality of women thinking they can be successful public relations professionals as long as they have a cute pair of shoes. The job market is tough enough, and I know in my own experiences it's difficult enough to even get an unpaid internship. I've heard many girls, PR majors, mind you, who are so excited to "get in PR" but hate writing. Or hate public speaking. Or are admittedly shy. I hope they realize sooner rather than later what PR is really about, and it in fact, is not just kicking up their Manolos for A-list parties.

Heidi
@hbobier

Rachel said...

Arik, this post brings up many great points as is clear by the number of incredible comments – leave it to my fellow communicators to add such great insight. I agree with most everything that’s been said and will add that not a single one of my clients hired me believing that I could benefit their businesses through my master party planning skills and double-cheek kiss ability, but because I can help elevate their companies and enhance their profiles through relationship building and brand strategy.

I don’t take too much offense when people are confused about PR or my job – I learned a long time ago that many people aren’t familiar with all that PR encompasses. But one thing that irks me about the stereotypes is that many young people become enchanted but our over-glamorized industry and mistakenly enter it believing it’s a fast-track to hot parties and cool connections. That makes them ill- prepared to work long hours getting turned down by media, handling administration and getting excited about less sparkly clients. It leaves them even more ill-prepared to develop messaging or create a larger communication strategy. This becomes clear every time I interview for entry-level talent and I ask the question “what do you enjoy about PR,” and the answer is “I really love fashion and parties.” I hope up-and-coming pros take the time to look beyond the glitter and learn more about the profession before they make the leap.

Kiss kiss :)
@rachelakay

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