PR Pros: A Bunch of Shady Sex-Crazed Skirts

by | May 16, 2008

The public relations industry is full of crazy parties and dishonesty in service of getting what we want. Right? Um, not quite. But those misconceptions are what happen when the PR industry fails in its own PR efforts.

Let’s talk about stereotypes of the Public Relations industry and its professionals. I came across two posts tonight that leave me a little bit concerned and a whole lot amused.

It was purely coincidence that I happened upon these two posts side by side, both addressing stereotypes people have of PR pros, especially from a student perspective.

The Stereotypes

Here are a few of the stereotypes that were mentioned between the posts, as well as a few I’ve faced personally from people who should know better (feel free to add your own favorites):

  • We’re liars.
  • All we do is manipulate people.
  • We spend all our time schmoozing.
  • PR’s for chicks.
  • Our job is easy or just one big party.

Caitlin seemed to take particular offense (and who could blame her) with the portrayal of Sex in the City’s character Samantha Jones, whom HBO refers to as “a successful PR exec who knows what she wants- and most of the time, she gets it. She radiates confidence in everything she does, whether itโ€™s landing a star client, getting a table at the trendiest restaurant or bedding the hottest guy in a room.”

Sounds like a typical “day at the office” for me. How about you?

Does Sex in the City go too far with Samantha’s character? I’m honestly asking… I’m not a fan of the show. Yet this is where I’m amused. Call me an optimist, but I’d like to think that most people (or at least a lot of people) are smart enough to know the difference between fact and fiction.

I mean, do you imagine that most doctors act like Hugh Laurie’s character on House? Do you think most in law enforcement act anything like your favorite characters in whatever Law & Order or CSI spin-off you’re into? Maybe you believe in the Boogeyman too.

I’m not saying Caitlin’s got it wrong. I think pop media probably does influence the general view of the Public Relations profession. And I blame us.

Shhh! It’s a Secret!

Caitlin talks in her post about having to defend her PR degree. Do you even feel a twinge of embarrassment when you tell people you work in PR? Do you try to give it another name? Do you just not mention it at all when you can help it?

Personally, I’d rather shout it from the rooftops. “I work in PR, and I’m damned proud of it!!!”

I think that’s the only way we’re ever going to do our part to educate people about PR’s existence, nonetheless the truth behind us and what we do. And apparently, we really need to get on that.

Bill points out the gender divide in PR, especially with Kent State’s PR majors. A recurring theme seems to be that students are going into college having no idea what PR is (which was true in my own case – I pretty much stumbled into the major), or they have a preconceived notion that it’s a “chick thing.”

Hey… the testosterone pool in the PR industry may not be overflowing, but I have to say I’m generally pretty proud of the guys we do have. Even though I don’t always agree with them, I’ll admit that most I’ve come across are pretty competent in the work itself (even the ones I don’t particularly like on a personal level). And quality matters more than quantity, right?

I loved one student’s quote that Bill published, essentially saying that women are better liars and therefore more suited to PR work. Maybe it’s just because I’m the bluntly honest type, but I don’t see that. Do you?

What Can We Do?

Why don’t we have more men in PR? Why don’t students know what PR is before getting into college? Why are we still fighting this stereotype that we’re all a bunch of lying party animals who wouldn’t know real work if it bit us on the ass?

It’s no secret that we do an awful PR job when it comes to the image of PR itself. It’s been discussed seemingly endlessly. I’d like to think things are better now than a few years ago. I find that smaller businesses I work with are usually the most willing to learn about what we do and how it can benefit them, and go into it with the fewest assumptions. At the same time, other groups seem too far gone – their minds probably won’t ever be changed.

So in your opinion, where should we be focusing? Educating future PR pros? Educating our current and potential clients? Working over the louses who still give us a bad name? (I vote for this one.) What can we do? Not on a grand scale even, but perhaps the better question is what can we do right now?

8 Comments

  1. I’m not in PR, but am considering the field, and I’d have to say my biggest fears are around the ethical dimensions. I think a huge part of the PR field’s bad public image is that, like lawyers, you’re considered “representation for hire” and ethics be damned.

    I’m glad to see as I study the field more carefully that this stereotype isn’t always true, but there are enough bad examples (greenwashing and astroturfing come to mind) that stick in the minds of the public at large to give the field a perennially tarnished image.

  2. Most PR people I know are pretty ethical in their work. It’s just such a shame that the positive isn’t featured as much for those outside the industry to see.

  3. It’s apparent that the only thing we PR folks can do to clean up our image … is to stop having sex. Heh.

    (Great post and responses. I dig reading your stuff.)

  4. Well if that’s the case, maybe it’s time to just embrace the “spin doctor” image and forget about change. ๐Ÿ˜‰ j/k

    Glad you enjoy the discussions.

    Sometimes I really wonder if, during my career, we’re going to see real PR vanish and simply end up sucked under the umbrella of “integrated marketing communications” as though we’re just a form of marketer instead of working in a different (albeit related) field. I know plenty of marketers (especially in Internet marketing) who like to think they can cover all things PR – without knowing what a lot of that really is. With the general public (and therefore a lot of our potential clients) not really understanding PR any better, I sometimes wonder if we’re slowly just being replaced.

  5. I think one of the problems with our profession’s image is the public has very little contact with public relations professionals. People know that doctors don’t act like Hugh Laurie because of personal experience. Unless they have a relative in the pr business, it is unlikely that the average people will encounter one until after college. That is why characters like Samantha Jones are so powerful in influencing perceptions. People do not have a reality to compare the fictional representation against. I’m a graduating senior in a public relations program, and I’ve heard that comparison too many times.

    I think the best thing we can do is get to high school students early. Even those who do not go into PR will actually have an accurate perception of what PR is.

  6. Hannah,

    While I understand your point, and agree that it probably plays a role, I can’t imagine that’s all there is to it. I mean, most of us don’t have experience with homicide detectives and FBI agents, but we have images b/c of those types of characters splattered across our screens. Do most people honestly believe that’s how they are in real life? I don’t know. Maybe they really do.

    I do agree that high school students need to be targeted more aggressively though. Honestly, most people I know in the US who went to college around the same time I did ended up changing their majors at least once. It was usually because they found a field in college that they previously knew nothing about. I find that sad – we’re pushed into things like general business, marketing, accounting, teaching, etc. because that’s what people know more about. So I don’t think its a problem exclusive to public relations… I do think we should have the skill set to overcome it though.

    I was actually talking briefly with a friend who lectures at a college in London the other day – teaching students from around 16 to 18 about media studies issues. I’d mentioned that one of the things I find so fascinating about the difference between secondary education here in the US versus their model is that we really don’t have as much exposure to specialized training and education when we’re younger (unless you go to a trade school or some specialized art school, etc. – most students don’t). I think that’s a topic probably worth exploring more – is this more of a US issue than an industry one? And what can we do to go beyond the traditional educational system and really let more students know what their options are? Unfortunately I only have the questions; not the answers.

  7. And there’s the problem – we don’t do enough PR to correct the impression/s people have. If you have the time, read my PhD study (2006) on the preddominance of women in PR. PDF available at http://people.aapt.net.au/~net/study

  8. I’ll be sure to take a look at that when I get a chance Greg.

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