Why "Public Relations" and "Credibility" are becoming mutually exclusive

It’s a fine line between public relations and publicity, but most people can understand the difference between arranging for a corporate executive to appear on a news interview show and making sure that the right starlets and the right rappers are invited to the lavish party with just the right color of red carpet.

Nevertheless, there is a worrisome trend among PR practitioners to go for the lowest common denominator to keep clients happy. What I mean is PR people who think creating a stunt generates excitement for a product or service. You may get 10 seconds on the evening news as a b-roll background to the weather statistics, but this isn’t about communicating your client’s message. This is a diminishing-sum game that will irreparably damage a PR industry already on the credibility ropes if it continues.

We wail and gnash our teeth about journalists not giving us respect and we wonder why we don’t have credibility with them.

PR people: Look in the mirror for the answer to this dichotomy.

Tanya Barrientos’ “Unconventional Wisdom” column in Saturday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Story pitches we should just, well, pitch,” gets to the heart of the “let’s find a news hook, no matter how tenuous, ridiculous, or contrived it is” disease that afflicts many inexperienced — and some surprisingly very experienced — practitioners.

The sad part is that many clients of PR firms think this sort of pitch is a really clever way to get their clients in front of the media.

It may sound exciting but generally all it does is turn the media off to those clients as credible sources of expertise.

Barrientos spotlights such silly approaches as these (direct quotes from Barrientos’ column):

  • “It’s holiday party time,” the release says. “You’ve sent out invitations, hired a caterer and trimmed the tree, and you’re looking forward to celebrating with your guests on Christmas or New Year’s. But have you also planned for potential legal issues you may face as the host?”
  • Gastro Expert Tips for Avoiding Xmas Indigestion. The pitch? “Those big family dinners we enjoy over the holiday season have an unspoken dark side, one that’s among society’s last taboos: the flatulence that results from gastrointestinal distress.”
    The publicist goes on to suggest an interview with a nutritionist who authors the “first blog to tackle… serious, open discussions about why we fart… “

Now, these two examples are probably pitches for very small firms that are having trouble getting their expertise on the radar of the mainstream media.

However, stunt publicity is also being used by very large organizations that have reasonably seasoned practitioners and are paying their PR firms millions of dollars to do sophisticated studies, surveys, media clip analysis, and to throw so many people at a media campaign that you would think someone would tell them this emperor ain’t wearing anything special.

One major financial institution is helping BusinessWire make its sales numbers for December by issuing a flurry of identical “media advisories” in markets all over the country.

The important news being “advised?” This company is alerting local media across the country that it is “depositing a large red couch” at major sporting events. Apparently, they are having sports fans dive into the couch casting around for loose change (not to be confused with a casting couch, one would hope).

This confection is served up to get people excited about a new “product” that rounds off your nickel and dime purchases and transfers money into a linked savings account. Wow, pardon my cynicism, but this is a big news event worth thousands of dollars in BusinessWire releases? This is the best thing that all these great PR minds could come up with?

What happened to having experts speaking plainly with people about personal finance issues and providing them with useful, actionable information? When the hoopla is all over and the fans go home and sleep off the beer buzz from the football game, are they really going to remember what that big red couch was for, let alone what firm paid to “deposit” it at the game? (Meanwhile, check with the financial reporters in the major media markets this company serves, and they say they can’t even get a phone call returned promptly.)

My guess, the PR people all know this approach to the public is flawed, insulting to the intelligence of the most attractive (high-net-worth) potential customers, and is ultimately a bunch of hooey, but the PR people already have seen that the corporate poobahs don’t want to hear how silly it is.

Even the agencies who help cook up this nonsense know that it is in fact nonsense, but they like the billable hours too much to put a stop to this madness by giving their clients the honest advice they are being paid handsomely to provide. So they get to do the silly tricks for a couple of years, they bill millions for it, and then they lose the account in a “review” a few years out, and someone else starts the miserable cycle all over again.

If we in the PR industry want more respect from journalists for our clients and ourselves, we need to cut out the “stunt” approach to communications, and start clearly articulating the competencies of our clients in a professional manner. We need to stop creating “events” and “opportunities” where no event or opportunity really exists. The public deserves better.

If we provide valuable resources to our friends in journalism, we will become credible.

But as long as we keep providing nothing more than bread and circuses, they will keep treating us like a bunch of clowns.

And we will deserve it.


  1. Completely agree Steve, but then again…. in what way do future PRO’s learn this at school ? Might be different in the US but here in Belgium most of the PR students I talk to are mesmerised by the “event/big bang” tactics in use in the industry. Much more glamorous than trying to have a physician explain something important in non Latin terms or an IT person talk plain English instead of a bits and bites language to the press. The side of PR which is all about providing information, getting conversations started, bringing people together, is not the part that gets the attention at PR schools, or in the industry for that matter. This has been an old issue for the PR industry… When are we going to get it right ?

  2. Well said, Steve and Philippe. Whatever happened to building relationships with reporters and understanding what THEY consider news? I remember at times in my corporate days of playing a game with reporters … they new I had to call; I knew I had to call; and we both knew it wasn’t newsworthy. But because we had a relationship, we could play the game and know that if it happened to be a slow news day, we’d get coverage. I also understood if it wasn’t that we wouldn’t.Stunts can be nice visuals, but IMHO, you spend way too much time pitching that for way too little.Build relationships so you can build credibility. It’s critical to have your personal credibility and your company’s credibility intact. I’m wandering, but frankly, I’m passionate about that. And part of building credibiltiy is understanding what reporters and editors consider news and then giving them news!

  3. Well written sir. The correct way to do PR should be explained to the clients who put so much pressure on the PR agencies to get media to the stupidiest of the events. When you explain to the clients all they is that we know better. In India the maturity in the PR industry is still to be seen PR agencies are nor treated as partners but a firm to follow orders because they are being paid a monthly retainer. And when the marketing and sales guys are given the job of PR it is a disaster.So even when you an internal party, the PR agencies are put ona job to get coverage. PR cant get worst than this.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.