The PR Industry Can’t Help Itself


Of all the professional skill groups that can be included in the marketing toolkit, public relations is the most ridiculous (PR is also used for public affairs and other non-marketing activities). Filled with backwards unethical and untrained professionals that consistently spam people and promote attention metrics instead of actual outcomes, the PR profession can’t help its poor image.

Consider these recent develops:

1) A top “social PR” firm blog touts that PR has successfully evolved to meet the social media era, providing clients much wider teach than the prior narrow trade and biz pub market of the 21st century. Really? Based on the crappy spam pitches I get on all of my social media channels and email, I can’t agree. The vast majority of agencies pitching social channels are far from successful. Carpet bombing social channels with spam is not demonstrative of evolution.

No, the sector hasn’t changed much, IMO. And frankly, pitching bloggers is not social marketing. It’s a small tactic in a much larger suite.

2) Two U.S. Senators decide to investigate the Obama Administration’s use of taxpayer money for PR. Um, OK. Welcome to the nastiness of DC politics during an election year.

BUT WAIT! The PRSA decides to participate in this grandstanding and defend the integrity of PR. Isn’t that like defending the sanctity of gambling? Meanwhile… Industry pros keep spamming media outlets, highlighting attention and reach metrics, pitching their agencies for awards, and generally pissing off the business community, all while collecting their retainers.

3) An agency March Madness tournament (Agency Insanity) pits socially “savvy” PR agencies against each other to find the best online firm. The winner is determined by Klout score, the ultimate attention metric. Right. Meanwhile… Spam still piles up in blogger boxes, and clients think the agencies are doing meaningful work.

Look this list could go on ad infinitum. Criticizing bad PR is easier than making fun of Kim Kardashian (speaking of PR attention). As you can see, the sector has a penchant for dramatics, hype and red herrings, much of which has little to do with business reality.

Can PR Save Itself?

Look, not every PR pro represents the worst case scenario. I know many strong ethical public relations professionals.

From a business perspective, good PR often comes down to your team, thus the importance of vetting agencies and staff closely. Generally, you can’t teach people character. You can’t force people to be professional, engage in ethical behavior or adapt a strong work ethos.

We’re talking about an industry that works on building perceptions. When perception is not based in factual realities, it become spin. Yet, this is what we pay PR pros to do. Further, the barriers to entry are so low that the sector attracts people from all walks of life, serious and not. The resulting image crisis speaks for the sector’s ongoing dilemma.

Given the industry’s dynamics, working with PR pros will always be hit or miss, and there will always be laughable and despicable moments alike. The best defense from getting shanghaied by a PR spinner is the ability to choose quality professionals who can deliver results.

Personally, I used to be a public relations professional. Like Shel Israel, I now consider myself in recovery from a PR career. Thank God.

What do you think? Is the PR sector salvageable, or will it always be a comedy of errors?


  • I can’t agree with you more. When I see PR firms positioning themselves as “social business consultants” I know they are way beyond their depth.

  • Good stuff, Geoff. This reminds me of an ongoing theme I’ve seen on my latest obsession, Sons of Anarchy. The gang is involved with gun running, but at one point they invest in, and take over the operations of a porn film company. The young guy who is struggling with his involvement in activities that shed a lot of blood (both theirs and others) sees this as a real future for the club. Get out of guns, and into a business that he sees as legit and legal. The President of the club disagrees, and wants to get out of the porn business, because he sees it as a “dirty business”. 


    •  Perception is a dirty business.What a crazy story.  I guess I shouldn’t be so proud to be a marketer!  Ha ha!

  • If people focused more on their own character and corporate culture (with things like values), they wouldn’t have to worry as much about managing the ‘perception’ of their brand. It would just be what it is.

    •  As we discussed elsewhere, same old, same old. And as you noted working on themselves instead of perception is the way out.

  • Great post Geoff.  I find there’s a similarity when it comes to hiring young PR pros.  You’ve got those who have had their nose to the grindstone, have excellent writing skills, may have basic SM presences (but get the concept that strategy and tools are separate thing), but haven’t been ‘out there’ so finding a job is difficult as their noses are still clean of feces (i.e. they haven’t been kissing up).

    Same goes for agencies – there are those that work on a very transparent model – seamless communication and cooperation with the client, too busy doing excellent work to bother with awards submissions, not into the showmanship that plagues this industry.  

    While they could be the best for a particular project the allure of inane awards/recognitions (oh, one of your people spoke at SxSW – great – how much WORK did they do in the year prior to that honor?) is hard to pass by since agencies place so much importance on trotting those awards around and capitalizing on their clients’ existing solid reputations as proof points of their good work.

    •  We love our hype with a smile. But as you and many people have noted there are the hard workers, and many of them go unrecognized. That’s important to know that they are there.

  • Geoff: I get your approach with this and I agree, the image-problem is an issue for PR pros like myself. Further, broadstrokes for an entire industry (positive or negative) seem to work because specific examples (great and horrid) are relatively easy to find if one cares to look.

    I definitely agree that since the barriers to entry are extremely low. Basically any spare can call her/himself a PR person and there’s little to no way anyone can refute their claim other than to simply not use them.

    You are correct in the idea of a best defense: “…choose quality professionals who can deliver results.” (Isn’t that true for *any* profession that one seeks for counsel or services?) Your question assumes the PR sector as a whole is akin to sunken wreckage. While I like the imagery, I don’t see it that way. But, if I have to work in that construct, then I’d say the PR sector as a whole needs to mine the wreckage for the treasures we know exist – those strong, ethical PR professionals who are astute at solving strategic communications and business objectives.

    Interesting post as always.

    • Thank you, Richie. I know you are one of those souls who is doing everything he can to make it better.  You should be commended for that.

      I would really like to see the entire sector start highlighting and promoting those treasures.  Instead we get AgencyInsanity, vapid awards, and extremely weak professional bodies that have little impact on the issues that cause the problem. The industry brings the reputation upon itself, in my opinion. I hope that changes.

  • Good work, comes from good people with good intentions and the ability to follow through. As a public relations professional, I ask several questions of myself first: 1. How will my work honor the client; 2. How will my outreach honor those the client wants to reach. Secondly, I ask the client very candid questions: 1. What do you want PR to do for you; Why do you want to engage in PR now; And, how will our work honor, those people we want to reach.

    I find when we engage in such conversations that involve honor, the outcomes can be quite different. And in many cases, remarkable.

    This seems like the right approach to bring dignity, respect and professionalism to the profession, client, and all those we touch.

    Unfortunately, not everyone sees things this way. Ergo this post. We will continue to have problems in our industry so long as clients and hacks put their interests first and the stakeholders’ second.

    For true success, we must strive to delight the client, honor stakeholders and be uncompromising in our value to do good work that honor’s people. Even if that means walking away from a gig, or calling out bad behavior when it happens.  

    •  A lot of folks have made some good comments that in my rashness to rant I should say here: All marketers suffer from this problem, too. I’d have to agree with that. Inbound marketing anyone?

      Other professions have this problem and are more tightly regulated, like the legal profession and the modern medical profession.  Generally, I respect a lot of people in this sector who have done great work. 

      It’s the damn bad apples are SO BAD. It’s just stunning, really. Keep up the good work, sir.

  • Geoff–provocative, and sadly, too true. I’d put it to you, though, that it’s a problem of philosophy with persuasive communications of any kind. My basic take on it is this: We all know in our guts when we’ve been screwed by a disingenuous transaction, and it’s not a problem inherent in PR that makes the field more likely to represent the bad side of persuasion. I think it’s partly that PR actually tries to be more honest about its aims (witness what happens when you’re honest, as Obama and Romney’s aide have been recently about what you say before and after certain parts of the election cycle, even though everyone knows it’s true) and partly that when we don’t like it, we tend to call it PR, and when we do, we call it a good relationship. If I were a PR person advising the PR industry, though, I’d have to say it has a long way to go in rebuilding trust, and might want to consider a different name and a radical rebuilding program, because its history certainly isn’t too savory.

    I know many good and upstanding PR people, and on good days, I think of it as a field like law, where the system depends on multiple viewpoints reaching some kind of justice (hardly akin to defending the sanctity of gambling), but on a bad day, I’d probably agree with everything you’ve said here. 

    •  I like the analogy to law.  Just like you need to find a good lawyer, you need to find a good PR person.  There are a lot of bottom feeders.  It’s my primary argument why certification won’t completely resolve the issues, but I do think sector wide certification will raise the bar a bit.  There’s a lot that needs to be done.

  • I see where you are going with this post Geoff, but I think PR still has hope to becoming a more ethical and respected career. I am a PR grad and I have been in the “real world” for just over a year now. 

    I think you are missing the evolution of the industry, being a brand spanking new PR professional, it has been repeated and repeated that PR professionals must uphold an ethical code. 

    I think we can’t give up home on the PR industry. We are in the growing process where some of us still follow the old ways of bad pitches and spin, and the new recruits are coming in not tainted by the old teachings, instead they come in with the ethical and proper way of doing PR. And natural selection is slowing weeding out the bad ones. 

    Don’t give up on us now, encourage the new recruits to stay on the right path and make the PR industry a better industry.

    • You know, Christine, this post was a bit of a rant. While I may be skeptical after 20 years in DC, I hope you are right. A better sector helps everyone, and will make for stronger businesses and nonprofits.

  • The annual, “I hate PR post” lol! 

    You know that I agree with you on all the salient points. But frankly, the PR spammers you talk about are a minuscule part of the PR industry. Look at regular spam, 80% of the world’s spam is generated by only 100 hard core spammers.  It really only takes a few to muck it up. Just sayin’.

  • Pingback:The problems with PR (and what to do about them) —

    […] Geoff Livingston Of all the professional skill groups that can be included in the marketing toolkit, public relations is the most ridiculous (PR is also used for public affairs and other non-marketing activities). Filled with backwards unethical and untrained professionals that consistently spam people and promote attention metrics instead of actual outcomes, the PR profession can’t help its poor image. […]

  • I spent 1 year at a small agency, 4 years at a giant one and 10 years on my own. I make good $$, have great relationships with media people and enjoy my work.  I care not one bit what anyone (who isn’t a client or media contact of mine) thinks of the “PR sector”….whatever that is.

  • Of course it’s salvageable; the only thing that matters is if PR as an industry wants to salvage itself.  And IMHO, it starts with a definition that’s fitting, and build a vision and core values from there.  At the end of the day, however, it boils down to what you wrote, “From a business perspective, good PR often comes down to your team, thus the importance of vetting agencies and staff closely.”  That is exactly right:  it boils down to the people doing the work, and whether or not they care about making a difference, earning a buck, or trying to do both (which I do not believe are mutually exclusive).

    •  I appreciate your enthusiasm. I am not sure PR pros can resist spinning their own definition. Thus the problem perpetuates.

  • This seems more like a diatribe on email spam. I think I agree with Kami, there are some bad actors, that doesn’t mean the entire profession is bad.

  • Geoff, thanks for this. And while we’re at it, that there’s another burning issue that needs to be addressed. That is, bloggers can’t seem to help themselves, either.

    Similar to public relations, there’s no barrier to entry in blogging. Bloggers do sleazy, unethical things, such as taking payment for mentioning companies and brands without disclosing it. The number of bloggers who are trained experts on whatever their subject du jour happens to be are legions fewer than those claiming to be experts or, worse, “gurus.” And, many don’t take the time to understand – or even care – if what they’re saying is actually correct. (To wit: PRSA is not “defending the integrity of PR,” but defending its value to the federal government when employed properly, in keeping with existing legislation regulating its use. And, the investigation actually began in 2010, not the current election year.)

    This list could go on forever. So, can blogging save itself?

    Clearly, this is all tongue-in-cheek and not meant to be directed at you or to cause offense. My point is, as in any profession (blogging, law, medicine, advertising and even marketing), there are good professionals and bad professionals, and public relations does have its share. But, it’s a bit tiring to see the entire public relations profession tarred (and people applauding the tarring) because of a few bad actors who do dumb things or send off-topic pitches. Given that annual U.S. spending on traditional and non-traditional public relations is projected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent between 2010 and 2015, to $10.96 billion, the profession doesn’t seem to be “pissing off the business community” to the extent you claim. Pissing off bloggers may be another matter …

    • I really can’t say that this comment made me feel better about PRSA, its actions to “defend the value” of PR, or the profession itself.  Thank you for your differing opinion, though.

  • Pingback:PR Spin? And Who Doesn’t Spin Anyways? « The Future is Young

    […] outrage and at the same time, understanding and acceptance of its truths.  The article, written by marketing strategist, Geoff Livingston, questions the value of public relations […]

  • I think the biggest issue is we lump media relations into PR. I consider myself a PR professional (though I’ve had several people tell me I’m not) and we don’t do any media relations. We do some blogger relations, but it’s rare. I remember seeing the top guy at one of the holding firms speak. He said it was our job to tell the story in a way the client wants it told. I completely disagree with that, but until the top companies have leadership who believe differently, the perception will hang around…no matter how hard I try.

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