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PR’s big reputation problem, or, you might be a sucker

Andrew Cross

The only two things in the world that scare me, wrapped up into one kid-size plush toy.

Here’s some breaking news for you: PR often gets a bad rap.

Shocking, I know.

Perhaps it doesn’t help our case that one of the men considered to be the father of public relations is the same man who popularized (and commercialized) the circus. His lasting legacy? Tom Thumb. Oh, and this gem: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

First of all, that quote is totally wrong, because there are 267 people born per minute, and at least half of them will grow up thinking toilets flush backward in the southern hemisphere. Suckers.

Companies have been trying to steer clear of the term public relations, opting instead for corporate relations, marketing communication, customer relations, consumer affairs, community relations or public information. I doubt they’re fooling anyone, but they can be forgiven for trying.

The PR industry has more pejorative terms for its workers than just about any other – among them, wizard, spin doctor, flack and propagandist. Oh, and my personal favorite, puppeteer. Which is totally not true, because one, if it were, my clients would be on the front page of The New York Times EVERY DAY, and two, I’m scared of puppets.

Popular culture imagery may lead people to believe we sit in ivory towers with wands, hypnosis watches and large advertising budgets, but the reality is not quite so dramatic.

So why the irony? How can it be that the PR industry’s hardest sell is PR itself?

Well, just like the older sibling who spilled the beans on Santa Clause and the kid who got us banned from playing four square at recess in third grade (I still haven’t forgiven you, Miles), a select few people can ruin it for everyone.

It’s up to those of us involved in PR to set the record straight – not only with management, but also with the public. The truth is, more and more companies are turning to public relations to deliver bigger results on smaller budgets because IT WORKS. PR is here to stay, but it’s up to us to represent our clients and companies responsibly and ethically.

Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker.