Study: PR Pros Are Much More Than ‘Yes Men’

Today in News We Already Knew, a recent study tells us that PR professionals aren’t all about representing their clients–they’re also dedicated to serving the public interest. In fact, they’re sometimes more concerned with maintaining ethical standards than with their duty to their own organizations.

The full study, which is unfortunately not available to the public, appeared in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality (which sounds fascinating, doesn’t it?). Author Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., a lecturer on journalism and public relations at Baylor University, and co-author Minette Drumwright, Ph.D., associate professor of advertising at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted in-depth interviews with 30 executive-level PR pros, each with an average of 27 years’ experience in the industry. Most had served as chief public relations officers in organizations ranging from government groups and non-profits to major corporations.

Other findings:

Participants said they often faced the “kill the messenger” conundrum, struggling to contradict those who outranked them–or convince these superiors of their own opinions. A few reported being fired or demoted for refusing to perform “blatantly unethical” acts for clients; one resigned after refusing to include false information in a press release.

Another key finding: according to study participants, senior execs at client companies often de-value PR pros, seeing them as little more than “tool[s] of marketing” rather than the professional problem solvers we know them to be. In order to be successful, these pros said they needed access to “decision makers” within client organizations–and called “communicat[ing]…without seeming judgmental” one of their biggest challenges.

One of the most effective techniques used by the professionals who participated was to perform the “newspaper test,” asking executives at client companies “What would the newspaper headline be if we were to do this? Is that what we want?”

Study participants also listed personal integrity as paramount to their careers. Here’s a great quote:

“I can’t afford to lose my credibility . . . As PR professionals, it’s all we have. And if I lose my credibility here, it’s not like I can just go start over with someone else, somewhere else.”

PR pros: what do you think of this study? Does it reveal anything you didn’t already know? How does your experience compare to that of the study participants?

And how can we counter stereotypes about our industry?