Why do PRs carry the can?

When something goes wrong, it's always a 'PR disaster', and it's not fair, says Mark Borkowski

Every now and then, someone knocks up a list of "the most unpopular professions", and journalists get to write about themselves for a change. Hacks, to whom the prefix "seedy" now seems to have become irretrievably attached, invariably top the list, above politicians and estate agents. What they've all got in common, of course, is that the public don't trust them: they don't believe a word they say. What is strange is that PRs have so far escaped the list.

Every now and then, someone knocks up a list of "the most unpopular professions", and journalists get to write about themselves for a change. Hacks, to whom the prefix "seedy" now seems to have become irretrievably attached, invariably top the list, above politicians and estate agents. What they've all got in common, of course, is that the public don't trust them: they don't believe a word they say. What is strange is that PRs have so far escaped the list.

We are, however, the subject of a book called Talespin, by an Australian practitioner of the not-as-dark-as-you-think art, one Gerry McCusker. Its subtitle (Public Relations Disasters - Inside Stories & Lessons Learned) perpetuates another myth: that the word "disaster" follows the word "PR" as often as "seedy" precedes "hack". And it's really not fair.

Behind every so-called PR disaster is a bad PR woman or man (let's be honest, PR stunts are usually a man's game). Or some rank bad luck. Or, as is often the case, advertising or marketing executive who thinks that he or she knows more about the PR business than the PR. And who carries the can? You got it. People like me. Well, I'm here to tell you and Mr McCusker that we've had enough. From now on, the term "PR" will be synonymous with the word "triumph".

There have been plenty of them down the years - and I'm writing a book about them. It's just that (and I know you're not going to believe this bit) we're a bit reluctant to take the credit. The problem is that we're way down the food chain. To the average client, there's a pecking order for selling their product that has the marketing and advertising people at the top (with commensurate salaries) and the PRs at the bottom. So they tend to listen to the ideas of admen who probably dreamed them up while brushing the powder off their noses, and never stopped to consider the consequences.

Many such ideas (often of the "let's put a T-shirt on a statue" school of idiocy) are ones that would be laughed out of the office at a PR meeting but, because they come from the highly paid and ever-so-trendy designer-suited ad executive, the client thinks that they must be great. Then, when they fail to generate a single column inch, guess who gets the blame? Yes, the PR again. And what's worse, we're the ones who have to pick up the pieces after the damage is done, and try to retrieve the situation.

The bad ideas (or "PR disasters") catalogued by Mr McCusker include the logo-covered streaker who burst on to the pitch at a climactic moment in an Australia vs New Zealand rugby match to plug a vodka brand, causing the kicker to miss his kick. Henceforth, the product (and let's neither dignify nor punish them by naming them again) was and will forever be associated with ruining a great sporting moment.

But why is it a PR stunt? Who's to say that it was a PR's idea? How do we know? It was, in fact, a terrible idea from the start because there was always the possibility that it would backfire. And a good PR stunt never allows that possibility because a good PR will never let it happen. For example, the Birmingham radio station that gave money to people for sitting on blocks of ice - a great idea until they got ice burns and some of them decided to sue. It was a stupid idea from the start because anyone with an ounce of intelligence could have foreseen the potential dangers. Again, it could have been a marketing or advertising idea but it goes down as a PR disaster. And maybe it was: I'm afraid that PR, like many other professions, is not an idiot-free zone.

Look at the Janet Jackson "nipplegate" scandal at last year's Superbowl. A great idea in Europe, but in God-fearing America? It has been called a PR stunt, but I don't believe it for a minute because good PRs (and there are a few out there, trust me) can see the consequences from all angles. I bet there was a record company executive behind that one. (One of the most famous "PR stunts" was Liz Hurley wearing "that dress" to the Four Weddings and a Funeral premiere: if that was a PR stunt, why didn't a PR come out and take the credit?)

Let's look at some more so-called PR disasters. Take Prince Harry ( please!). Everyone calls his Nazi-uniform-and-swastika-armband gaffe a PR disaster, but it is inconceivable that he was actually advised to turn up looking like an inept member of the Hitler Youth. It was just a case of a stupid idea by a rather dim young chap with some equally dopey friends (and a brother who could easily have pointed out his error before it happened).

Here's another one: the bloke who is advertising on eBay that he will tattoo a brand on his forehead - if that was a PR stunt, the idea would have to have come from the person or company that actually wins the auction.

Not that I'm here to defend all PR. Far from it. The truth is that, unfortunately, much of PR is pretty awful. There are PRs who have no idea how a newsroom works or journalist thinks. But lots of things that get attributed to PR are nothing to do with us.

And everyone thinks that they can do PR for themselves. Take Big Brother, for example. People think that they can generate column inches just by getting their tits out on television. Despite, or perhaps because of, that old adage that "there's no such thing as bad publicity", people continue to underestimate the power of bad publicity. I was once at a meeting to discuss ways to regenerate an ailing vodka brand, and it was mooted by the ad agency that they should use a high-profile 1970s children's TV presenter to front the campaign. They were clearly unaware that the man in question was well known in the media for having a major drink problem. Bad enough, you might think, to associate a children's TV presenter with alcohol, but an alcoholic children's TV presenter? Yet I was told that I was panicking the client and it would be "nothing to worry about".

So, what is a good PR stunt? Like a good football referee, it's one that you don't notice. The media don't like to see the hand that pulls the strings, so a good PR stunt is one where the public doesn't even realise that it was a stunt. Or if they do, it makes them laugh. And, from the selling point of view, it's all about connecting to the current news agenda to create "wantability" with a wide audience. Try it - it's not as simple as you might think.

Every time it goes wrong, it will still be labelled a PR disaster, because I'm not sure that anyone actually knows what PR is any more (which might explain why more people than ever are trying to get into it, under the misapprehension that they'll be rubbing shoulders with celebs every day). The truth of what can be a fairly mundane profession has slipped into a black hole somewhere between the spin-doctoring of Alastair Campbell (and what a great PR term that is - "spin-doctoring" sounds so much better than "lying" or "distorting") and the blathering of Edina from Ab Fab.

And there's an irony: PR has got an image problem. Perhaps it just needs a PR man or woman to fix it.

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