Correcting the Public Relations Industry's Image Problem

There is a great paradox currently facing the public relations industry. On the one hand, there is more awareness and appreciation of the power, influence and utility of publicity and media relations than ever before. On the other, there has never been so much misunderstanding and misinformation about what PR practitioners actually do. It almost makes one long for the days when professionals in the field were dismissed as flacks or caricatured in films like The Sweet Smell of Success. Instead, today we are often seen as all-powerful spinmeisters or Svengalis, ready at a moment's notice to put one over on the press and the public by obfuscating the truth or peddling a bogus story.

Nothing could be further from the profession that I know. In fact, if I've learned anything over the course of my 53 years in the business, it's that the most important tool any PR pro has is his or her reputation for personal ethics and integrity, qualities that are -- paradoxically -- too seldom associated with the public's perception of the industry.

If the industry's image continues to be so trivialized and the substance behind its practice so widely misperceived, I fear public relations professionals are in danger of losing their hard-won seats at the table advising leaders in our most important corporations and organizations. And I worry that someday people entering the business -- and some who have been in it awhile -- may be tempted to take short cuts, to violate the basic ethical foundation that is essential if public relations is to retain its ability to reach and inform the constituencies that are critical to the health and vigor of America's businesses and institutions.

When I started in the industry, a large part of it indeed did revolve around one-off publicity tactics orchestrated by well-connected press agents. But long ago that gave way to more strategic approaches that are used -- over time -- to build valued and respected brands and to strengthen the reputations of businesses, organizations and individuals.

If the PR industry is to continue expanding its role as a conduit to the media, and through them, the general public, we must work harder to shift the perception and reality of the craft from that of a marginal or dubious trade to a mature profession. We must earn and nurture the respect of all with whom we deal - our clients, the media and the general public. Reestablishing and upholding the highest ethical standards is at the core of that task.

There are three things the PR industry should embrace to begin resolving the paradox. First, we must ensure that all those entering PR understand that it is about far more than media events, publicity stunts or red carpets. Learning to maintain a high ethical standard is just as important as mastering the basic skills of media relations and client counsel. As the industry recruits and trains the next generation of PR professionals, the need for high standards of personal integrity -- and the behavior that such standards require -- should be stressed at every turn.

Second, a major focus of the industry's ongoing professional education and development should be upon the business value that high ethical standards represent. Like other professions such as law and financial services, reputation is a key element for success in public relations. Without the trust of clients and the media, public relations practitioners cannot perform at the highest level to shape and advance causes, enhance prestige and public acceptance and explain and defend courses of actions.

Finally, all PR organizations -- both within corporations and other institutions and without -- should strive to represent the high-road ethical approach in every situation. I often say to clients that the question to ask when considering how to harness public relations to address a problem is not "what should we say?" but rather "what should we do?" PR can play a critical role in the equation by serving as a strong moral compass in providing our advice and counsel, siding with other ethical voices in the room and then devising the strategies needed to communicate positive actions in straightforward, creative and attention-getting ways. Others will thus gain respect for what we -- and those we represent -- do, not just for what we say, thus changing the image that PR occupies in the public mind and bringing it closer to reality.

Demand for effective PR has never been higher. But the responsibility the industry has to conduct its business ethically is increasing just as fast. Even as the sophistication and complexity necessary to serve clients in the information age has grown exponentially, the ethical underpinnings of public relations -- to provide sound advice to our clients, to deal straight with the media and to serve the public interest by effectively disseminating valuable information -- remain the same. It is up to us in the profession to meet the challenge of our image problem, seize the high ground we deserve, correct the misperceptions about our industry and protect the tremendous accomplishments PR has made over the decades.

Howard J. Rubenstein, who founded Rubenstein Associates, Inc. in 1954, has an extensive list of over 450 clients including The New York Yankees, News Corp., The New York Post, the Guggenheim Museum, BMW, Mt. Sinai/NYU Health System, Autism Speaks, Rockefeller Center, Columbia University and the Empire State Building.