Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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