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The Economist and PR: Stereotypes and Reflections

Photo credit:  The Economist,
PowerPoint, Screen Capture.
Intrigue.  Anger.  Indifference. Reflection. 

That’s a summary of my reaction to The Economist’s article in the special Christmas section entitled: Rise of the image men.  It’s a short history of PR.  It’s a review of current trends.  It’s a high-brow hack job, from an otherwise reputable publication, that continues to succeed in an era where it’s brethren weekly news analysis magazines Stateside, have had less luck.

Regular readers know The Economist has a different approach to journalism:  They have no bylines, it favors fact-based opinion — but opinion nonetheless — even in reporting hard news, over objectivism; and it offers what many American publications do not:  a world view.

The images associated with the print and digital editions speak volumes, in a way words cannot describe, as to the outlet’s views on PR.  A “superclean PR Kit” complete with a toothpaste tube labeled “Reputation Whitener” greet the reader on page 126.  A polished man, in a conservative suit, is putting a handsome and youthful face mask over his unattractive face on the next page. A wolf in sheep clothing slinks across the bottom of the article’s third and final page.

These are images of judgment.  Ironically, perhaps intentionally, these images suggest to  the image man himself – that is the industry – is in dire need of improved relations with the public. Unfortunately, some of the brightest minds in our industry quibble over parties, who coined what term first, and who is selling out, rather than as PRSA would suggest, advancing the profession.  

A handful of PR influencers have even begun to distance themselves from the term “public relations” in favor of associating with social media because it’s easier to get into the executive suite. To paraphrase the revolutionist, Ben Franklin, surely we’ll all hang separately if we don’t hang together. 

Despite the fact the article is riddled with stereotype and innuendo, that The Economist peered down its spectacles and covered the industry of PR is recognition of the industry’s maturity, its viability and the business need.  I am certain I once read in O’Dwyer’s, a PR industry trade publication that The New York Times refuses to cover PR because it doesn’t recognize that the $10 billion industry is in fact an industry.  My searches tonight for that reference to provide a link for this post proved fruitless.

The Times has however, from my perspective, willingly “cast PR professionals as flip-flopping, candy chewing flacks that “whisper in the ears” of the elite or influential amid a changing media landscape.”  It’s recognition, albeit begrudging, but recognition.  It underscores my assertion that the PR industry is in need of some of its own counsel.

While my mental NLP engine would tone this article negative, it does hit on a number of trends and topics of significance to the industry:

What is public relations? It’s a question long asked.  Google returns more than 80 million results in response to this search query.  PRSA, the largest professional organization for the industry in the United States, defines the discipline officially Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”  It’s a definition I believe simply leads to more questions, and invites news organizations like The Economist to write, Yet, after a century of spinning, PR Man remains uncertain of his proper role. Is he a master manipulator? Is he the devil’s advocate (as long as Satan pays his fees)? Or is he a benign bridge-builder between the corporate world and the public? 

The industry needs a simplified and more articulate definition of our profession.

Ethics in PR.  The Economist says Ivy Lee, an oft cited founding father of PR preferred relativism over truth, or in the words of the publication, Verisimilitude mattered more than veracity.”  On their own pages, The Economist is the decider, but the alliteration of Latin root words is not lost on names like Jayson Blair.  If The Economist will peer back as far as the turn of the century for muck to rake, it’s fair enough of me to cite circa 2003.  Whichever side your profession falls on, without integrity, you have nothing.

The business case for PR.  Lee noted how the emerging mass media were acting as the conduit for the anti-capitalist message of Progressivism, the liberalising reform movement that peaked in America in the early 20th century,” reads the article.  “He realised not only that it was essential for businesses to counter this message, but that the same conduit could be used to spread pro-business sentiment.  If I didn’t read The Economist every week, the idea that the publication is in fact itself pro-business may have been lost. In fact, its very brand is the study of capitalism.  The perennial, if not ethereal, big business is an easy target of opportunity. Universally applying a coal mine standard to every corporation is about as rational of an argument as labeling every journalist by the actions of the aforementioned Blair. Businesses can and should advocate for their causes.  The alternative – silently waiting for discovery – has a smaller probability of being heard than the castaway’s message in a bottle.  Business innovation solves real problems.  We’ve built a country on this idea.

Dynamics of the industry. Lee observed that the rise of national newspaper chains and syndicated journalism in America since the 1880s, combined with the extension of the franchise, had profoundly changed society.” Indeed and it’s happening again through social media.

PR-reporter relationships. Ever since Lee’s first spats with cynical hacks, public-relations officers have been locked in an antagonistic, symbiotic relationship with journalists, with mutual contempt tempered by mutual dependency.Must they be antagonistic?

A seat at the strategy table.  Some cite firms such as IBM and Diageo (a drinks giant) where PR men have won seats at the executive top table. Such optimists—the industry is full of them, of course—now spy a rare opportunity to steal a march on the Mad Men of advertising and the flipchart-wielders of marketing. In the chaotic online world of social networking, they argue, their talents are much more relevant than their rivals’.  This is not fiction, but a very real trend – as Advertising Age wrote last year, PR is moving central in marketing. I’d ask The Economist to fact check the brand name of the publication that espoused such an idea.

Advertising vs. PR.  Which is better advertising or PR? They have also fought for influence within big corporations against their great rivals in the marketing and advertising departments.The Economist, like many, is chasing the wrong question.  It’s not about which discipline is better – each has merits – it’s about how they work together.

Who owns social media?  Here’s their [the image man] spiel: the mainstream media—the traditional gatekeepers of news and the bane of the PR man’s life—are becoming less important. So is the worth of the advertising slots they sell, and therefore so are the sort of paid-for, hard-sell campaigns that the ad men and marketers deal in. Meanwhile social networking, with its cacophony of bloggers, Facebookers and tweeters, is becoming more influential. It is also confusing and hard to control. The public is becoming deafened and confused by a barrage of contradictory messages.”  The Economist gets this completely wrong. Surely that’s a spiel, but it’s not coming from the PR industry.  PR’s case is about trust.  It’s about working with editorial contacts.  It’s a rejection of commercialization.  It’s about compelling content and less hype. 

If there’s a positive perspective on this article, it’s my sincere hope that it will result in some industry soul searching.  That a common enemy – misperception – will unite the industry and sound a call to action to forgo egos and address every notion in this article line by line. I hope to see many, many blogs on this article. 

And more importantly that they lead to action. Intrigue.  Anger.  Indifference. Reflection.  Action.

Related reading (On going updates):

PRSAY: Merely ‘Image Men’? Hardly
A PR Guy’s Musings: Digital PR in The Economist
Firm Voice: A Reply to The Economist (Council of PR Firms)

Drew B’s Take on PR: The future of PR, according to The Economist (it’s not pretty)
In Focus:  In Focus: The Economist burns the entire PR industry. Hmmm…

O’Dwyer: Economist Reveals Ignorance of PR
PRNewser: ‘Economist’ Doesn’t Paint a Pretty Picture of PR
the ever curious PR guy: The Economist magazine misrepresents PR folks, and the magazine is right
Fast Company: The Rise of B2B PR (FC blogger @wendymarx)

Flack’s Revenge: Battling PR’s Image Problem
Spin Sucks: The (Wrong) Image of the PR Industry
Matter Communications: I’d find it hard to believe that all journalists feel this way…

Previous stories by the publication on PR:
The Economist: Do we have a story for you!
The Economist: Public relations in the recession


According to this Tweet, by @Wadds, while The Economist bashes PR, they also buy PR services.  Given The Economist’s comment “as long as Satan pays his fees” does this mean that The Economist is calling itself “Satan?”  @Wadds posted this blog post on the article.  @mpwatson also appears to be employed by @Wadds and made his own post to Twitter.

Update 2 (12/21/10):
@Wadds confirms he provides PR services to The Economist. 

Update 3 (12/22.10):

Marketing-Interactive.com: The Economist Hires Edelman For PR Push
Despite this fact, I still hope to see Richard write a rebuttal on 6 a.m. 

7 Responses

  1. Keith

    Frank – Your post offers an excellent and thoughtful rebuttal to The Economist's unfortunately short-sighted and pejorative-laden "analysis" of the state of the PR industry. Thank you for giving another voice to concerns that many of us (including PRSA) within the profession have about the rather condescending viewpoint the publication took in the piece, and its lack of a proper perspective.

    Your point about hoping that this article incites action within the industry is well taken, and one we are already undertaking at PRSA. In addition to our blog post in response to this article (which I want to thank you very much for graciously linking to in your post), we have also submitted a letter to the editor of The Economist, co-signed by John Paluszek of the Global Alliance, reubtting several of the misinformed points of the article and upholding the profession's strong and important value to serving the public good and helping businesses prosper.

    Like you, I also hope that this article will incite many of the feelings of intrigue, confusion and a call to action that you felt from reading the piece. While the article may have presented a derisive view of the industry's value, the reality is that public relations provides far more value than it is often given credit for, and you present that reality excellently in this post.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations
    Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)

  2. Krista

    Hi Frank- I appreciate your take on the article, as it also got my blood boiling last week when it made the rounds on Twitter. As a PR professional, I feel like I'll always be defending my work due to misperceptions and half truths. But I also share your optimism that the industry should unite and reinforce ethical standards and practices in response to such stereotypes.
    Hope you have a great holiday and happy new year!

  3. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    @Kieth – it's going to take some serious lifting to tackle such a project. Hopefully, more people will blog about this article and motivate people to action. Glad to hear that PRSA submitted a letter to the editor and look forward to reading it next month. Also, kudos to you for responding quickly in the comments of the article.

    @Krista – indeed the constant defending is a distraction from the work you could be doing. You can count beans or make them. As David Meerman Scott said in a rant once, "What's the ROI of putting your pants on in the morning." I've always been big on measurement, but think measures need to be constructed in a way that they indicate the needle moving forward while not soaking up resources that ought to be dedicated to the core work. Thanks for the comment and furthering the discussion! Hope you enjoy the holidays.

  4. Jack O'Dwyer

    Hi Frank:

    Where is anyone connected with the PR Society who will face down Wendell Potter, author of "Deadly Spin," who is barnstorming the country to publicize his book about the PR abuses of the healthcare industry?

    Potter will be in NY City Jan. 10 but I guarantee you no one will show up from the Society, Arthur Page, Council of PR Firms or any group. They're in hiding. The one thing they can't hide is all their hiding.

    Potter knows his stuff. He was at Cigna 20 years.

    Here's my critique of the birdbrain Economist piece. As for what PR is, it's hundreds of things–anything you want it to be. As for what PR counselors do for their clients, it's anything, anything, anything.

    I attended the Counselors Academy of the Society each year for 25 years and that's what they told me. –Jack

    Wednesday, December 22. 2010
    Economist Reveals Ignorance of PR
    The oh-so-smart U.K.-based Economist revealed how ignorant it is about U.S. PR in a 2,700-word article Dec. 16 under the headline, “Rise of the image men; PR man has conquered the world. He still isn’t satisfied.”

    The article falls on its face by repeatedly referring to “PR men” and “PR man” although the majority of PR pros today are women and the percentage is increasing.

    About half the article appears to be a re-write of material in "PR! A Social History of Spin," a 1996 book by Stuart Ewen, Hunter College professor of film and media studies.

    Ewen wrote extensively about Ivy Lee’s role in helping to create the PR industry in the early 1900s. He noted that while Lee promised “accurate information” about clients answering all press questions “most cheerfully,” he did not always live up to such promises, earning the nickname, “Poison Ivy.”

    It concludes that SM fans as well as “most powerful and influential people,” still get “their basic information from old-fashioned news providers.”

    Economist Choked on Tylenol
    The magazine on April 10 said Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol murders in 1982 and 1986 is the “gold standard of crisis management” although the company re-introduced easily-spiked capsules after seven people had been murdered with them. It pretended total lack of responsibility for this, offering a measly $100K reward for information about the murders.

    J&J has refused to talk about the subject for at least a decade.

    This website sent criticism of J&J’s actions by PR professors and ex-employee Scott Bartz to Economist editors but they refused to budge on their praise of J&J’s PR.

    PRSA Knocks “Pessimistic Assessment”

    Gary McCormick, PR Society president, in a posting on the Society’s website, said the magazine’s “pessimistic assessment couldn’t be further from the truth.”

    McCormick talked about the “strong ethical standards” of the Society although it removed any enforcement of its Code in 2000.

    The German Council of PR issues “public rebukes” of PR professionals who don’t live up to the Council’s ethics code.

    The Middle East PR Assn. this week fined Dubai-based d-PR 15,000 dirhams (about $4,000) for improperly editing a photograph in the group’s annual awards banquet.

    Claims PR is 'Growing Rapidly'
    McCormick said PR is “growing rapidly and in some ways, faster than its brethren, advertising and marketing.”
    The Society’s current membership of 21,000 represents a growth of 1,400 members or 7% since 1998, when membership totaled 19,600.
    Growth in the period from 1990 to 1998 (eight years vs. 12 years) was 30%–from 14,983 members to 19,600.

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor said “PR specialists” totaled 240,610 in 2008. “Reporter/correspondents” totaled 50,690.

  5. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    Hi Jack: Thanks for stopping by:

    Regarding PRSA's response to The Economist, in my view it was both swift and pointed. I'm glad they are out there with counter points.

    Regarding Potter's book, it's a different case all together and admittedly, I've only paid modest attention. I have not read the book (I think I read the same book years ago under a different title "Toxic Sludge is Good for You") but I have read a few of the author's blog posts, which like The Economist, cites examples that are decades old.

    If PRSA (or any of the other organizations you named) has any relevant links, I'd invite Keith to post them if he so chooses. One industry leader I have seem come out vocally on his own blog (6 a.m.) and in a contributed post on PRNewser is Richard Edelman.

    I cannot comment on the Counselor's Academy as I've never been. The definition you cited indeed seems ambiguous. That said I'd still be interested in what you personally believe.

    Thanks for your comment, Jack.

  6. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    Thanks Bob, for coming by, reading, commenting and Tweeting. I really like the name of your blog — and it's seems fitting given the context of this post. For anyone else interested, Bob's post is the "Flack's Revenge" linked to above.

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