As public relations practitioners and communicators, we’re in the business of reputation management. Yet, our own reputation is often seriously misunderstood. We’ve heard this before: stereotypes about public relations exist, but we still can’t seem to fix the issues.
In my undergraduate thesis, I took the position that the media is responsible for creating and fueling these stereotypes, ultimately threatening our ability to do our jobs effectively. Film, fiction, journalism and television, the media takes a significant role in social construct, which is why we, as professionals, often look to them to convey our clients’ messages.
However, the media is also responsible for misinforming the public with these untruths:
- Public relations is confrontational. Through phrases such as public relations battle, public relations disaster, or public relations war, it conveys the message that the only job to be done is to fight the big fight.
- Public relations is only used as a cover-up technique; practitioners are deceitful, manipulative and liars.
- Public relations is just publicity and media relations, confirmed by their (often inaccurate) portrayals of practitioners.
- Female practitioners are over sexualized, lack management capabilities and are only viewed through their physical attributes. Think Samantha Jones from Sex in the City. The only strong female public relations character portrayed by the media was C.J. Cregg from the popular show the West Wing, and she was never shown to be in a relationship at all.
- Public relations is a female profession, deterring men from entering the field. Male practitioners who are portrayed by the media are almost always seen as cynical, sarcastic, edgy and contemptuous.
After some time in the field, I’ve learned that yes, the media is an influencer and instigator of the industry’s stereotypes, but more often than not, we as practicing public relations professionals are too. At Stern we call this the “Uncle Bob” scenario in that many of us are challenged to articulate how to tell family and friends what it is that we do. Additionally, I can’t tell you how often I see articles from journalists telling public relations practitioners how to do their jobs, which just confirms there are serious issues at hand.
We must be the thought leaders in our own field – the champions and knowledge experts. If we expect our field to be respected, then we must prove to our clients, prospects, the industry, the media and the business world at large that what we do is not just important, but beneficial. Most importantly, we must get better at communicating what we do and why it’s valuable.
According to the Public Relations Society of America, “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Building off that, at Stern, we believe public relations is about engaging in meaningful ways, respecting yourself and those you work with and whole-hearted commitment, enthusiasm, and integrity. It’s our ethical obligation to do our jobs to the best of our abilities.
What it boils down to is that fighting off these stereotypes in the media and beyond falls on us and I think it’s time we do some PR for ourselves. Apply the best practices to your work and be mindful of what you are putting out there. After all, it’s a reflection on all of us.