‘Economist’ Doesn’t Paint a Pretty Picture of PR

Ivy Lee

A recent article in The Economist turned its attention to the history of public relations.

“Rise of the Image Men” takes a look at Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, and some early PR work. The picture of the “image men” that the article paints isn’t pretty.

“The effort to state an absolute fact is simply an attempt to give you my interpretation of the facts,” the article quotes Lee.

The article also discusses some of the work the industry has done for questionable or downright despicable clients, such as both sides of the 1960s Nigerian Biafra war and governments “with poor human-rights records.” On more current topics, the article touches on social media.

The PRSA and members of the PR industry, of course, have a response to this story.

On the PRSAY blog, the organization takes issue with what it sees as the characterization of the industry “as the selfish younger brother or sister of advertising and marketing, desperately grasping at the glory and profits those industries have long enjoyed” and focuses on positives such as the role of women in the industry and the good the industry has done.

A number of recognizable names also appear in the comments section of the article to talk about the narrow historical scope of the article, with one commenter calling it a “rehash of student texts on Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays and doesn’t take account of recent developments.”

The story is clearly one-sided. But while it’s important to talk about the good, you can’t neglect the bad. PR’s reputation has been earned by the highlights and lowlights of its history with this question of ethics and the PRSA code coming up repeatedly.

Setting this article aside, the industry has to own up to all of its past and show how it has learned some hard lessons. Moreover, if firms continue to represent distasteful clients or break ethical standards on a client’s behalf, negative talk about the industry and its reputation will persist, no matter how much messaging and explanation (a.k.a. spin) is offered.

When the industry can speak plainly about where it comes from, what it does, and where it’s going, it will improve its own reputation and give the public a better sense of what all it is that publicists do.

[Image via Wikipedia.]