The end of the spin cycle? Why the PR industry wants a change of image

There is a certain symmetry, and some would say an irony, in the fact that the inaugural gathering of Britain's public relations industry took place at the St Bride's Institute, which is not just in Fleet Street but is, even today, the home of the London Press Club.

Since that initial "exploratory" meeting on 10 February 1948, called to discuss forming a professional association "to serve as a platform for the exchange of ideas and experiences and to foster the interests of the profession generally", PR professionals have spent six decades struggling to get on with journalists.

The relationship has evolved, to a degree that it is now sometimes said that PR holds an upper hand, cynically spinning and distorting the output of hard-pressed news organisations. Others argue that without the support of a new generation of publicity-conscious communications professionals, the modern media, a content-devouring beast that never sleeps, could not survive.

The evolution of the PR industry in the 60 years since the founding of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, is illustrated by the organisations represented by some of those founding fathers – and they were pretty much all men – such as Bill Vint of Hastings Corporation, Kenneth Day of Erith Town Council and Eain Ogilvie of the International Wool Secretariat. Largely the representatives of local authorities, they reflect only a small fraction of the business-driven multi-million pound PR machine of today.

Yet more than half a century on, why is it that a profession dedicated to protecting and enhancing reputations does not itself have a better name and continues to be tarnished with slurs of spin-doctoring? Martin Loat, founder and director of Propeller Communications, is clear where the problem lies. "Journalists exert a lot of control over what gets spoken and written about PR, so if a journalist encounters a poor PR who can't answer a simple inquiry or a combative PR person who won't roll over, the journalist might have a grumble. That happens in any profession, but in this case the grumbles can end up in print. That can harm PR's reputation; but it's a distorted lens."

Loat points out that the businesses and celebrities who hire PRs, not to mention the students eager to enter the industry, suggest that the scorn of certain journalists is not shared by the wider public.

Lionel Zetter, a former president of the CIPR and a specialist in the public affairs sector of PR, is even more robust in his defence. "PR has a reputation, both in the UK and elsewhere, of delivering value," he says. "Very often, when sitting around the table, it will be the PR professional who will come up with the solution to whatever problem the collective body is facing."

Increasingly, he points out, that PR professional is sitting at the boardroom table. "Ten years ago you might have found that the director of communications would not have had a main board position, but nowadays that would be very much the exception. Any company of size or substance that does not have a PR on the board is probably missing a trick."

Yet there are well-known figures in the industry who are prepared to admit PR's shortcomings. "Some of the biggest fees are for laundering the reputations of some of the major companies. We have to hang our head in shame when we look at what some of the big food, tobacco and energy companies are doing globally," says Mark Borkowski of Borkowski PR. "That's an element where a PR can lose their moral compass because of the enormous fees being offered. Billions of dollars go into selling dodgy political regimes." Nevertheless, Borkowski accepts that "PR is a many-headed hydra, from investor relations to corporate social responsibility to publicists" and he acknowledges the "phenomenal work" being done particularly in the charity sector and in issue-based PR.

The great diversity of the industry is something which Elisabeth Lewis-Jones, the current CIPR president, feels is not always appreciated. As the director of the Bromsgrove-based Liquid PR, she has a perspective that extends beyond the capital and points out that half the institute's members work outside of London. Lewis-Jones believes that PR is a growing business, a reason why it is a popular choice of career for graduates. "Most in-house teams are looking to recruit and it's hard to get senior staff at the moment – the industry wouldn't be growing if it had a bad reputation."

The downturn of the economy will not, she believes, undermine a sector that is "incredibly efficient" in delivering value for clients.

Journalists are fewer and less likely to attend press conferences, but are more likely to rely on the support of a PR, says Lewis-Jones, adding that the CIPR runs a continuous professional development scheme as a means of upholding industry standards.

Despite what journalists think, there is more to a PR's job than providing information to the media, and only a tiny fraction of the industry is involved in political communications. "The vast bulk of the 20,000 practitioners are promoting products and services for businesses," says Ian Wright, corporate relations director at the drinks giant Diageo, which has a team of 250 providing corporate relations information for 60 markets.

He argues that the growth of the PR industry has been beneficial to society, enabling organisations to get across their views in "a coherent and well-organised way" so that people can then "make their own judgments about issues that they may be debating".

James Wright is director of corporate social responsibility at Trimedia UK, part of a Europe-wide PR group. "PR has evolved a lot in the last few years. It is becoming more and more important because it's not just about generating media coverage and column inches, it's about generating relationships that will create traction and have an ultimate business benefit. We encourage clients to engage with other organisations that have a beneficial relationship with their business or organisation."

Wright has taken a proactive role in countering the spread within the PR industry of "green-washing" (where unfounded claims are made for a client's environmental credentials) and has drawn up best practice guidelines for the CIPR. "You need to be able to prove what you say in a much more robust way," he says. "It's not about painting the toilet green, it's about fixing the plumbing. It's not just a marketing opportunity, but a chance to change your whole business."

He says that part of the reason why PR is not better regarded is that the public tend to see the industry as publicists who have a role to "generate publicity". One of Britain's best publicists, Alan Edwards, CEO of the Outside Organisation, which numbers Paul McCartney, David Bowie and The Spice Girls among its clients, says his task requires subtlety and tact. "One reason that the PR industry has a hard time proving its worth is that it's very existence is a bit ethereal. It's influence is massive but not tangible and many of the greatest practitioners prefer to remain in the shadows. PR can stop wars, bring down governments and establish nonentities as celebrities, and if it's good PR you will never know it."

Edwards says that the modern media landscape means that PR has had to evolve into a 360 degree beast. "The days of publicists sending out meaningless releases are numbered," he says. "The really good publicity companies in the future will contribute much more. Speed of thought, global vision, ideas, management reputation and brand enhancement will all play crucial parts and we will finally see the industry get the credit it deserves."

Those pioneers of the post-war years were onto something, but they could hardly have imagined it would turn out like this.

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