A story in the news this week caused me to ask myself a simple question that most PR professionals have asked themselves at some point: what is “good PR”? I’m not looking for a bookish explanation from PR majors, but what your average PR practitioner thinks it means and how they interpret the question.
Ask that question to a room full of PR practitioners at a PRSA conference and I imagine you’ll get textbook answers. Ask the question at happy hour on a Friday of friends in the business and you’ll probably get very different responses.
Here’s how the PRSA attendees might answer the question: good PR accomplishes strategic goals for your client while providing honest and accurate information to your target audience. (That’s the short answer – feel free to visit the official Ethics page on the PRSA Web site here).
I imagine the happy hour answer would be a little different. Since the drinks are being served and the mood is upbeat, the question gets answered conversationally – and honestly. People talk about how much press their clients are getting thanks to a new stunt they pulled off. Their client’s magazine sales are up because people who had nearly forgotten the magazine existed have suddenly seen the name flashed on their TV screens and Google News for the past week. “Who cares about that deceased hiker and her family,” the person says, “Hustler just wanted to write a news story and was able to capitalize on the mainstream media’s fury over a straightforward request for pictures that should be publicly available.” They go on: “The target audience – potential subscribers – won’t be dissuaded by the media outrage, they’ll be thinking about re-subscribing to the magazine.”
I am not claiming that Hustler’s recent attempt to secure photos of slain hiker Meredith Emerson’s nude, decapitated body was a PR stunt. However, it very well could have been. When a company is selling sleaze, it is difficult to define what exactly “good PR” means, and that poses a problem for the PR profession.
Harmful PR campaigns can be conducted honestly and for a cause that may seem innocent, like telling a story about one hiker’s tragic death. The spin would be easy. Hustler could say they are trying to raise awareness about sexual predators.
There’s my case for why professional guidelines are often inadequate filters for deciding what’s right. I believe there’s a gap in our PR ethics. I don’t fault PRSA for this; they provide broad and helpful guidelines for professional conduct. There is value in that. But at some point we all have to ask ourselves if sometimes a defensible position that is good for a client’s bottom line – like securing photos that one believes should be publicly available and attracting significant media attention in the process – is simply damaging to our culture. That’s a good reason to draw a line in the proverbial sand.