Advocacy Pulse of the Profession Thought Leadership

Merely ‘Image Men’? Hardly

For the lay person reading this week’s Economist article about historical shifts in public relations, derisively titled, “Rise of the image men,” it would appear that public relations is viewed as the selfish younger brother or sister of advertising and marketing, desperately grasping at the glory and profits those industries have long enjoyed.

Fortunately, for the well-informed, The Economist’s pessimistic assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. Reality tells us that the profession is far more sophisticated, and delivers considerably more value, than it is often given credit for.

The article begins with a relatively thorough history of the early years of public relations. Unfortunately, the historical perspective largely ends there. The reader is left with little understanding of the great strides taken by the profession to establish strong ethical standards, successfully adopt new technologies, including social media and digital communications, and help businesses grow and prosper through innovative practices and strategies, among many other achievements.

In a letter to the editor of The Economist submitted this week by PRSA, and co-signed with John Paluszek, APR, Fellow PRSA, former PRSA chair and CEO, and current Global Alliance Chair, we noted that, “Public relations is widely recognized within the global business, nonprofit, NGO and public service communities as having progressed to the point where professionals are generating two-way communications, leading to mutual understanding, cooperation and reciprocal relationships at many levels of society.”

Had The Economist more thoroughly explored outside perspectives about public relations’ value, rather than relying on contumely and misinformed stereotypes, it likely would have found the following enlightening and informative for its readers:

  • Public relations has served immeasurable public good. It has changed attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues, from breast cancer awareness to drinking and driving to smoking and obesity.
  • Women play a significant role in driving innovation within the profession. The article’s use of the pejorative label “image men” is insulting not only to the profession as a whole, but to female professionals, who make up a large swath of practitioners, including serving in senior-level positions in some of the world’s largest corporations.
  • Public relations is a dynamic and multifaceted profession. Far more than merely utilizing publicity (which is a small subset and specialized discipline within public relations) to generate media attention, public relations is valued throughout the world for its abilities to help companies, executives and causes connect, engage and communicate with the public and their audiences, in a mutually-beneficial manner.
  • The profession isn’t chasing the social media dreams of advertising and marketing; it already owns that vital realm.

  • The industry is growing — rapidly. And in some ways, faster than its brethren, advertising and marketing. According to projections from the Veronis Suhler Stevenson 2008 Communications Industry Forecast 2010-14, the public relations industry will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.6 percent through 2014.
  • Ethics guide the profession. Public relations professionals have a special obligation to practice their craft ethically, with the highest standards of truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public. The PRSA Code of Ethics provides a practical set of standards to follow in this regard.

But don’t just take my word for it. Many comments in response to the article refute rebut several of the misinformed and outdated claims made by The Economist. What are your thoughts?

Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, and director of partnership development at HGTV in Knoxville, Tenn.

RELATED: PRSA Op-Ed in CommPro.biz: PRSA to The Economist: PR Pros Are More than Merely ‘Image Men’ (Dec. 22, 2010)

17 Comments

  • I fully agree with you, Gary. Public relations plays a vital role in product launches, politics, social issues, crisis communications and much more, and it goes far beyond image. If we practiced public relations for image only, few of us would still be in business or keep our jobs. Our clients and employers demand that we move the needle.

  • Great points Marisa. By now you would think most of our clients, employers and even publications know that image-making is transient and that long-term relationship building is a much better foundation when you face controversy or crisis. Guess they don’t read their own press much…

  • Thanks for catching that, Todd. As editor of this blog, I struck out “refute” and made the change to “rebut.” We appreciate your help!

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations
    PRSA

  • I could not agree more with Gary and as the leader of this historic and successful organization he could not have said it better. Our industry goes much further beyond image.

    As it was lightly mentioned, public relations professionals now have a seat at the table in major corporations i.e. IBM. Why do you think that is? Because an increasing number of companies understand and realize the tremendous value public relations provides for an organization, a brand or an individual.

    Thanks again Gary for setting the record straight.

  • Great thoughts from Gary on illustrating the vital role effective public relations plays in society today. Also, articles like this one should inspire those of us who take the profession seriously to continually define “public relations” and its value in building relationships between an organization and its publics.

  • I’m on board Gary, the question is: what are we going to do about it? That’s the point of my own response here: http://bit.ly/flaF34

    And I’d encourage every commenter on this blog to construct a blog post of their own, then come back to the comments here and share their post.

    We need action. This misperception has gone on far too long. It inhibits the industry. We spend more time justifying our work or defending it — than we do — doing it. This is not a sustainable model.

  • Gary — I agree … especially when it comes to owning the Social Media space. More than marketing and ad pros, we’ve always been more tuned into and better poised to respond to immediate reactions and responses from our publics, whether negative or positive.

    I wouldn’t read too much into the Economist using the term “Image Men” though. It’s just a play off the title of AMC’s Emmy Award Winning dramatic series “Mad Men.”

    Cheers,

    Dick

  • “Dick – I agree that The Economist is making light using the Mad Men play for “Image Men.” Ironically, that casts us in the retro image that advertising has on that program by association, wouldn’t you think? That’s the point. We’re a different profession than the publicists of yesterday.

    Frank – Thanks for your blog post and we completely agree that we need to be more proactive in talking about the value of public relations. Our Business Case for Public Relations (http://bit.ly/gAzv7G) will continue to be a major platform for our advocacy, including educating the business community about the strategic value of public relations, over the next year as it has been in 2010.

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