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USA Today’s Cynical View of Public Relations

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You may have seen the article/book review in the Feb. 10 issue of USA Today, in which public relations is characterized as “amoral, difficult to define, and difficult to measure,” and in other unflattering and uninformed ways. If you have not seen the article, you may access it here.

What appears below is a Letter to the Editor defending our profession, which is in keeping with an important part of our Member Code of Ethics:  Public relations professionals are obligated to strengthen the public’s trust in what we do as a profession.

Please take a moment to read the article and our response and, if you’re so inclined, to add your voice to this discussion of our profession.

February 11, 2009

To the editor:

Seth Brown’s article and book review, “Despite Dim View of Public Relations, It May be Needed,” concludes that “PR is amoral, difficult to define, and difficult to measure.” Had Mr. Brown actually solicited input from the public relations industry in researching and writing his article, he would have come to a very different set of conclusions.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) champions a Code of Ethics for its 32,000 professional and student members and, more broadly, the public relations industry at large. The values it advances—Advocacy, Honesty, Expertise, Independence, Loyalty, and Fairness—are fundamental beliefs that guide the industry’s behaviors and decision-making process. The PRSA Code also contains specific provisions for advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information, and for disclosing all information necessary to foster informed decision making in a democratic society.

In our complex, pluralistic society, public relations helps individuals reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It aids businesses, governments, and other organizations in understanding the attitudes and values of different audiences in order to further the achievement of their institutional goals. The public relations practitioner is a counselor to management and a mediator, helping to translate private aims into reasonable, publicly acceptable policies and actions, and to mitigate risks.

The outcomes that public relations drives are no longer difficult nor expensive to measure, and include both attitudinal and behavioral metrics, as well as financial measures, such as return-on-investment. Public relations’ effect on sales, market share, brand awareness, stock price, reputation and trust, customer satisfaction, fundraising, employee morale and retention, event participation, Web site traffic, and regulatory changes can all be quantified, by way of example.

Mr. Brown also decries the industry’s lack of formal training. In fact, PRSA maintains student chapters at 302 colleges and universities that offer baccalaureate degrees, are accredited by nationally or regionally recognized accrediting associations or boards, and offer a sequence of at least five courses in public relations that are supplemented by ancillary courses allied to this field of study.

Furthermore, PRSA and the Universal Accreditation Board, a consortium of 9 public relations and communications organizations, administer a course of study and testing that allow individuals to become Accredited in Public Relations (APR). The APR designation proves that an industry professional has successfully demonstrated competency in the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to practice public relations effectively in today’s business arena.

As for Mr. Brown’s use of “Hitler, Goebbels, and the Nazi propaganda machine” as a metaphor for the public relations industry, I would hasten to add that Hitler was a book author, as well.


Michael Cherenson, APR
Chair and CEO
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)

About the author

Michael Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Thank you for writing this. As a public relations student and young professional, this article offended me. I was surprised how uninformed this writer was and wondered what happened to “unbiased” journalism. I applaud you for writing this and defending our profession.

  • I think the article quoted is just a book review and not necessarily the author’s view of PR. Either way, USA Today needs to make proper disclosure in the future for what it may appear as defamatory.

  • This was indeed a shocking article. It is difficult reading the article and understanding which pieces are quotes/impressions from the book and which belong to the journalist Mr. Brown. In any event, kudos to PRSA and Mr. Cherenson for defending public relations – both the profession as well as its ethics!

  • If PR is permanently tainted with the stench of deceit, then why am I getting so many resumes from journalists who want a job?

  • There have been a lot of negative comments lately about PR and media relations not only as fallout from this Dim PR book, but also from the public controversy currently broiling about the octuplet mother in California.

    I’m feeling the heat of the fire’s negativity acutely right now, not only because I have been a PRSA-Los Angeles member and market analyst and media relations professional for many years, but because I am a mother who had four children within a year (TRIPLETS plus a singleton) who happens to also handle pro Bono media relations for the non-profit The Triplet Connection.

    This crisis should force us all to work smarter. As social media and blogging turn every day people into Citizen Marketers (the term first coined by a book by the same name), we professionals must continue increasing the intensity with which we monitor and respond to what is being said about the issues, organizations, and products we represent.

    Kudos to PRSA for once again defending our profession so valiantly.

  • Although I agree with Michael Cherenson’s response, he broke the first rule of opinion engagement: Don’t repeat the negative.

    Instead of quoting from the book review’s litany of alleged sleaze, he should have affirmatively stated in his lede, “The bedrock of the public relations profession is truth, just as it is for journalism. This is central to our code of ethics, and central to our ability to effectively serve our clients, employers, and the public.”

    Don’t repeat the negative — that only reinforces what you’re trying to rebut.

  • Mr. Cherenson”s letter is misdirected. It should have been sent to the authors Morris and Goldworthy. Almost all of the Seth Brown article quotes or refers to their book. There is no doubt that Brown used this source for getting some ink in his publication, but many journalists use this technique to get published.
    Mr. Cherenson also quotes the phrases about public relations being “hard to define” and “hard to measure” as being unflattering. As far as I know, after a forty-year career in the profession, no one has ever come up with a definition of PR that is all encompassing and satisfactory to all practitioners. And despite all of the advances made in surveying, testing and analysis, we still can’t accurately measure the mental processes that effect changes in public opinion.
    As noted in the article, Brown estimates 240,000 individuals as either practicing some form of public relations activity or using a title incorporating PR, although the real number is probably two to three times that. Chernson claims the combined membership of PRSA and PRSSA is about 30,000, and assumes all of them abide by the PRSA Code of Ethics, when, in fact, it is almost impossible to sanction members for violations, because miscreants easily avoid penalties simply by resigning. Also, the association has little, if any, control over the activities of non-members.
    While it is important to defend the profession when an attack is egregious, we really can do without “knee-jerk” responses to relatively mild.
    Theodore Lustig, APR; ABC; Fellow, PRSA

  • And what ARE the credentials and licensing requirements for being a book author?

    No amount of education or credentialing offsets the need for personal ethics (the kind that don’t require a code or a manual). “The dark side” has plenty of credentialed denizens, from plumbers to doctors.

    I’ve been a hack and I’ve been a flack and to say the difference between them is “truth” is utterly disingenuous. Too many hacks don’t want to let facts or context get in the way of a good story. Don’t they remember the J-school warning to “consider the source”? That applies to all sources, not just the flacks.

  • Thank you Michael Cherenson for setting the record straight in response to such an unfounded assault on the PR industry. I think the authors of this book may have watched one too many movies such as “Thank You for Smoking.” This type of view is a direct slam to the many colleges and universities offering degrees in PR, and to the graduates of those programs and PR professionals such as myself. It’s also one of the driving reasons I’m now pursuing my accreditation.

  • How is this “USA Today’s Cynical View of Public Relations” when it was a book review written by an independent writer? I don’t see it as the newspaper’s official view of our profession, and the letter in response seems way too long to be considered for publication.

  • The authors of this book (which I haven’t read) are both practitioners in the United Kingdom. I do not mean to malign all PR practitioners in the UK, but I have personal experience with them, and the ones I worked with closely mirror the tabloids in their penchant for pushing sensationalism over truth.

    While in graduate school here in the US I became friends with a British woman getting her master’s degree in PR at the same school. She returned to England and worked for several PR agencies before coming back to the US to get a PhD in political science, because she was so disgusted with the practice of public relations in her home country. She said the profession in London bears no resemblance to what she had been taught in school here and experienced in several internships.

    These authors have written other books about PR in Europe. Again, I have not read this book, but I am willing to guess they have not had enough experience with the US public relations community to comment authoritatively.

    And for the record, along with my master’s degree in public relations and marketing, I have my APR and teach accreditation courses.

  • The piece in USA TODAY was a book review, not a judgement on the PR Profession. If PRSA has complaints about the way the profession was portrayed, contact the book editors, not USA TODAY.

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