Bad Apples in PR

IStock_000007908093XSmallLast week Next Fifteen’s Tim Dyson blogged about “Why companies should use PR agencies,” echoing many of the points I had also raised last year (and which have been solid justifications all along, in good times and bad).  In the comments of Tim’s post, he wryly noted, “funny how this issue keeps coming up.”

Except it’s not funny.  And before you suggest that the issue wouldn’t be raised if PR had a better way to demonstrate ROI, let me assure you — it’s not about ROI.

Let me say that again: the reason PR agencies feel the need to continually justify their ROI has nothing to do with Return on Investment or other forms of measurement.

No, the reason that PR agencies must continually defend their value is because there are a lot of shitty PR people.

Look at the legal profession. “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” right?  Yet lawyers are an important, valuable resource for those who have legitimate grievances.  And for every lawyer that loses a case, there’s a winning attorney, too — so the legal profession has a built-in 50/50 track record of success.  Any baseball fan will tell you, “batting .500” is pretty darned good.

Yet we hate lawyers, because there are a lot of shitty, ambulance-chasing attorneys out there, giving a bad name to the perfectly nice, helpful, talented professionals trying to earn a decent living as legal eagles.

It’s both better and worse for PR pros.

It’s better for us (i.e., we are not despised nearly so much as lawyers) because our role in society rarely leaves a lasting mark. PR pros are not going to impact case law, a.k.a. people’s lives, whereas a landmark legal case can have huge impacts on the populace.

IStock_000009447077XSmallIt’s worse for PR in that any schmuck can call themselves a PR pro.  At least lawyers need to pass the bar exam to join the ranks; there is no need for APR accreditation to join an agency.  There is no enforceable code of ethics, either.  So while PR’s rapscallions are less odious in terms of their ability to hurt people, they are also too easily minted, and have little incentive to mend their ways.

There are plenty of fantastic PR agencies whose clients rarely question the value they receive.  Their clients know that their agency provides much-needed counsel, relationship-building expertise, and unique resources.  But, most corporations get burned once or twice by bad agencies along the way.  Similarly, members of the media and blogosphere are pummelled by bad pitches, which far outweigh the good.

Is it getting better for PR?  I think so, actually.  As I noted back in April 2007:

“(Thanks to Social Media), PR pros lose the luxury of working behind the scenes.  More and more often, in these early days of the blogosphere, a bone-headed pitch will be instantly revealed/reviled.  The crappy PR firms, the dialers-for-dollars, will get smart or get out.  Those that remain will likely have faced up to the fact that more and more of their agency’s work will be disinfected by the sunlight.”

We are in an era now in which Public Relations is increasingly talked about as the core driver of Social Media — which as we know is a huge game changer for culture in general, and Marketing in particular.  We couldn’t be reasonably expected to rise to this challenge if there weren’t enough good (or rehabilitated!) PR practitioners slogging their way — through smart & successful work — to improving our industry’s own reputation…

So maybe someday we’ll see fewer of these “justification” posts.  Maybe.

Posted on: January 11, 2010 at 10:31 am By Todd Defren
77 Responses to “Bad Apples in PR”


  • Jen says:

    Thank you for the uplifting article. I am a PR student and often when I tell people that they give me this glazed over look because they think I am wasting my time or they have no idea what PR is. I think the emergence of social media has really made PR to be the growing industry that it is today. I think the research and strategy that PR professionals have put into social media campaigns have saved a lot of organizations from crumbling. Crisis communications especially has really shifted to the hands of PR professionals. This article reminds me of the great opportunities that there are in PR and how excited I am to showcase my strategic communications skills.

  • Alex McClure says:

    “So while PR’s rapscallions are less odious in terms of their ability to hurt people, they are also too easily minted, and have little incentive to mend their ways.” I disagree with this statement, and I think you point it out at the end of the post. I think that PR professionals, or those that call themselves so, do have an incentive to mend their ways. As you point out, with the increase in social media, public relations is in the publics eye more than it ever has been before. The increased exposure will weed out the bad PR and highlight the good PR. Hopefully, eventually PR professionals will not have to justify their work as much because good PR will be the norm and will take a larger role in the decision making of businesses.

  • As far as I am concerned, companies should be really caring when it comes to feedbacks from their customers. I mean… one hour of effort devoted to exposing bad behavior of a company is worth way more than 10 hours devoting to promoting it. Negative public relations is not (at least doesn’t have to be) about smearing or malice… one day the public will understand it.

    • Tanisha King says:

      As a student at Columbus State University, I am currently taking a PR course and find this topic very interesting. Maintaining a positive and trustworthy reputation is important. Social media has opened more areas for PR practitioners to reach their targeted audience. Developing solid relationships with the customers and the company or organization can lead to better outcomes. A good PR personals listens to the clients and creates understanding between both groups. They are the fore front of the company and beings forth new developments and structured strategies.

  • Taimarie Locke says:

    As a junior majoring in public relations at the University of Oregon I find the reputation of PR to be very interesting. I started off in PR because I love communication but I have found more and more students who chose PR as their major because they are interested in event planning, promoting or becoming the next “Samantha” from Sex In the City. Our media and television is shaping the way society views the PR profession.

  • Melissa B says:

    As a PR student at the University of Oregon, it is very interesting to find the profession may have a bad reputation. People should step up their game and try to be more truthful in the PR profession. When I graduate, my goal is to be an honest professional that will help defer me away from the bad reputation.

  • erin says:

    As a soon-to-be graduate with a degree in public relations I found this post very interesting. I agree with the fact that many people are now calling themselves PR pro’s who are clearly unqualified to be declaring themselves a pro in this field. While any field of business will have their bad apples, I think they are easier to identify in public relations. With the expectation of real-time communication as well as social media advances it because increasingly difficult to convince someone you are a PR pro when you aren’t. As an active member on various social media websites I have seen many people claim to be professionals who are not. Transparency is a must in this field and if you are claiming to be something you’re not, there’s a good chance the majority of people will realize you’re a bad PR apple.

  • Tracy Scherzer says:

    Dear Mr. Defren,

    As a student studying public relations, I am very interested with how public relations individuals are viewed by society and the sort of reputation and/or public opinion they as a whole uphold. Those people not in the field of public relations may interject, claiming that with any profession there will always be those few people that ruin it for the rest of us. However, it is much more important for those individuals that have a career in a profession such as public relations because reputation and public opinion are everything—it could make or break you and/or your business. With this being said, I very much agree with your blog post.
    For the most part, I have noticed that people associate public relations with negative connotations such as when a company or an individual in the limelight makes a mistake. Some people automatically think that public relations is needed in that particular case to slant and/or spin information so that the negative attention no longer falls on the company and/or the individual the public relations professional is working for. Even with something as simple as a news or press release for a company, many people immediately presume that the public relations practitioner who wrote the press release deliberately wrote in such a fashion as to make the company he/she is working for seem better than it is in reality. I’ve also heard people say that they think of publicity or just simply ‘working with people’ when public relations is mentioned.
    Public relations is so much more than that. It can involve event planning, event promoting, writing (news and/or press releases, feature releases, etc…), public service announcements, conducting audits for companies, acting as an image consultant, acting as a public relations counselor, or newly emerging is acting as the social network person for a company or a person (mostly seen in entertainment and sports), and lastly, possibly being an entrepreneur within the field. There are so many different paths a person can take in the field of public relations and it’s a shame that not every one will value the different abilities of a public relations practitioner.
    Maybe it is just simply those select few that are ruining the entire reputation for the profession, but if that were the case, then I would work extra hard for my clients to prove to them that not all public relations professionals are crummy. Maybe then, a difference could be made one client at a time to help offset the unsatisfactory incidents of those public relations practitioners that are not up to par with the rest of the profession.
    I really appreciate your post about the bad reputation public relations practitioners receive based off of the actions of those few that taint it due to their conduct or lousy work ethic. This is very helpful for people like me who are studying public relations to understand aspects of the job that may not be apparent until we already hold a public relation position later on. Thank you for your professional insight on this matter.

  • I found this post very interesting as a soon to be graduate with a degree in Public Relations and Image Management and as one who takes an active part in social media. I agree with the fact that there are a number of individuals out there who do not practice the best techniques and approaches when dealing with clients and other PR professionals. A lot of whom I observe and wonder “where did you get that from?” It’s disheartening a lot of times as a student to see professionals not handle themselves well and be able to come up with a thousand ways I would have done it differently especially when looking at a firm or individual whose practices I usually admire. I also agree with the fact that anybody can call themselves a PR pro and when they do not follow the same steps or etiquette that others follow it shines a bad light on the entire field but like a lot of people said those people exist everywhere.

  • Bekah Garr says:

    I agree with you that a lot of people make it hard for PR practitioners to have credibility because a lot of times PR people can get themselves in situations where they lose credibility and give out information that is inaccurate. In the world we live in today though, you are right that it is harder for scams and PR practitioners to really mess up because people know instantly. Communication is so fast that the moment it happens or occurs they are found out.

    Minority can skew the whole, but I think that overall in PR there is a code of ethics that everyone follows. PR practitioners need to remember to always tell the truth and be accurate in all that they do. The PR profession is becoming more transparent every day, and therefore we need to constantly be on watch and have strong ethics to do the best job and maintain credibility.

    Great post!

  • Nice post! I agree on your ideas here. In very job there are really bad apples in it that needs to be thrown away because they are useless and nothing to do in the company.

  • Max Edmonds says:

    I am a senior at the University of Oregon. I chose to study public relations because I acknowledge that it is a field which is moving into a new era; one where quality writing and tactical ingenuity are identified and rewarded. The vast majority of organizations and corporations internally suffer from a lack of good communication with the media and the public. PR practitioners are now kept in check by social media, but also can utilize it to become recognized from quality work.

  • Max Edmonds says:

    I am currently a senior at the University of Oregon studying Public Relations. I chose PR specifically because I can see that there is a lot of crappy PR efforts which are occurring within almost any organization. Even though entry-level positions do not pay much, I see the PR profession as one in which quality work provides one with a large advantage over the competition. A day in the life of a PR practitioner is never the same- every day is another opportunity to exercise ingenuity.

  • You are right. There are a lot of bad apples in PR poisoning the water for good PR professionals. It is true anyone can say they are in PR. I think our profession is misunderstood. Our pop culture doesn’t help with our profession’s image. Think MTV’s PoweR Girls, character Amanda on Sex in the City and Bristol Palin opening up shop to name a couple of stellar examples. For those of us in the field, we all know PR isn’t glam, but lots of hard work. (I’ll take the compliment that we make it look easy.) Public relations isn’t about just about press releases or publicity. It is about educating, connecting, raising voices for good, and influencing and/or changing habits, views, and choices. It takes a lot of skills to be able to do that successfully… research, planning, evaluation, and creative abilities with a good dose of passion and humor for what you do.

    Being an APR, I believe in the process. The APR at the end of your name is not required, but it does give you some weight. Something needs to change in order for the profession to move to a higher level. I follow the Code of Ethics, but there isn’t any teeth to it other than professional shunning. It could work for some, but if you are a true DB then that would be a nope.

    Public relations has an opportunity here to change perceptions, but now if we all could keep on message…

  • @ajgerritson says:

    Hey Todd,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. You might have already seen this slideshare – but just in case you haven’t (enjoy):

    The content is in line with this discussion.

    AJ Gerritson, 451 Marketing (451heat)

  • Joanne Jacobs says:

    The worst kind of PR Pro is one who thinks they can describe themselves as a social media expert, with little to no understanding of the technology, nor the culture of social media. The second worst kind of PR Pro is one who thinks ROI isn’t important.

    Social media isn’t a new channel for PR messages; it’s a completely different way of communicating and engaging with audiences. ROI isn’t there to guard against crappy PR agents, but because PR is designed to generate value for the firm, and for managers, this should be indicated in long term financial modelling as well as fit with an overarching marketing and communication strategy. And PR strategy is designed to cover extra-organisational communication, leaving staff in the firm free to focus on their core business.

    It’s important not to oversimplify either social media or PR, or to assume that what you perceive as an inherent value is either self-evident or indeed universally required. Bad apples are aplenty in both social media and PR; don’t add to the pile by glib claims of the implicit value of PR in a social media age. We ALL should be able to demonstrate our value through ROI and through intangible benefits.

  • @larsv says:

    Todd – what else to say than THANK YOU!

  • jenn_lee_ca says:

    PR has traditionally been about providing positive news about a company. Many PR people have not truely understood how to implement customer control of the message. PR has to understand that it is the process of how customer connect to companies and how PR can use that process to communicate effectively with their customers to create a specific emotion that is congruent with the brand that they want to achieve.

  • Excellent Points, Todd. To Your Point, to Me The Worst Thing About PR is PR People. Oftentimes, We Misrepresent Ourselves & Our Industry When We
    * Generalize Things When, In Reality, They May Only Apply to Our Clients.
    * Get Lazy and Lose Sight of Who We’re Working For or Why
    * Fail to Follow-Through With Communicating to Our Own Teams
    * Forget to Keep Our Clients (Not Necessarily Our Teams) Happy
    …and I Could Certainly Go On and On.

    But This Rings True on So Many Levels and for So Many Unfortunate Reasons. We Just Gotta Get Back to Making Things Happen..on a Real Level.

    So, Here’s to Keeping it Real and to Weeding Out the Crappy PR (People)!

    ~ Narciso Tovar

  • Guillermo saavedra says:

    Great article Todd, I agree with you that PR profession compares with that of lawyers. We have to defend PR!

  • I received my APR accreditation during the Carter Administration and even then the “ROI” issue was being beaten into pulp. Chalk it up to the insecurity that comes with being in a profession with a low entry threshhold. Stop apologizing and do great work. Your return-on-investment will always be self-evident to the people you want to work for. The others? Dump them before they dump you. Which they surely will.

  • Good thoughts Todd. Fleshing out bad PR practices is important so we can all evolve. Peter Shankman’s HARO is the perfect example of PR professionals being held accountable. Shankman occasionally “outs” the worst offenders who are simply spamming the community with bad pitches.

    I’m also a big fan of the Bad Pitch Blog. From the posts I’ve read, they don’t normally out people but do a good job of identifying best and worst practices. The days of blasting a news release to your entire list serv are (hopefully) long gone.


  • Excellent points, Todd, and glad you brought up the APR. Despite all the protests by PR people who want “a seat at the table” or to be respected as an “adviser to management,” there’s almost always a knee-jerk rejection of any kind of professional credentialling. It’s about time the complainers stopped dismissing APR or ABC (the IABC credential) and started requiring people to pass the exams. Some people may believe that they are not useful measures of competence, but as someone who spent five years on the PRSA Accreditation Board and helped write the new test instrument introduced about five years ago, I can tell you that the test does in fact measure the actual skills people said are most often required in daily practice.

    In the financial community, for years the credential for entry was an MBA degree. In the past ten years, the Chartered Financial Analyst credential (CFA) has exploded in popularity, because many financial institutions have required employment candidates to also be pursuing the CFA charter. It’s a grueling 3-part exam that takes three years to complete. And people happily study for it in groups, pay for workshops to help them pass it, etc. Why? Because their employers demand it.

    PR Agencies are afraid to demand APR or ABC levels of competence from their employees, and the question we have to ask them is WHY?

    Steve Lubetkin, APR, Fellow, PRSA
    Past member, PRSA National Board of Directors, 2003-2005
    Past member, Universal Accreditation Board 1997-2003
    Senior Fellow, Society for New Communications Research

  • I’ve been in this profession for 18 years now. We were talking about these issues back then. The more things change…

  • Arik Hanson says:

    The call-out graph says it all for me. I think back to Scott Stratten’s recent post about the PR pro he dealt with in Las Vegas: That kind of transparency is going to expose a lot of hacks in the months/years ahead. Should make life a *little* easier for us all, no?


  • Great post about PR and how the perception of a powerful minority can skew the image of the majority or whole. There is (and always has been) a lot of political mileage in this simple concept, but I’ll valiantly avoid going there.

    The less interesting, but more directly relevant to me, point is the one about using ROI as a justification for “investment” (let’s call it spending, please) in circumstances when igt can’t really be measured anyway. I speak as a (former) accountant who understands ROI, and as someone who runs a training consultancy in an industry that is forever harping on about getting great ROI out of “investment” in people.

    I firmly believe that good training, like good PR, is money incredibly well spent, but let’s not pretend that we can perform a miraculous, accurate, or meaningful financial return calculation on it.

    I had a little rant about this very subject here ( if you’d care to take a look!

  • tallulah says:

    Great points all over this article, Todd.

    I’d add that one root for bad pitches that get PR peeps in trouble is poor management of client expectations. I’ve exchanged battle stories with colleagues who claim that they pitched Oprah/Time/Economist because their client demanded to. Instead of managing that (ridiculous) expectation, some PR managers even assure them, “Will do, I think they’ll love it!”

    I’ve seen and heard this time and again, and it’s never a good way to build relationships in this business. It’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you, but bad pitches (and pitching strategies) are biting the entire PR industry in the can.

    Thanks for the topic. It had to be said.


  • abbycarr says:

    Agree with it all — except for the ida (was it there or did I infer?) that accreditation would weed out the bad apples? Cuz I don’t think it would. I think, like @jarviscromwell pointed out in his post about ski resorts bragging about non-existent snow, it is the transparency that will “out” the bad pr folks. And, to mix metaphors, we (Shift, Bliss etc.)can offer the good apples who are escaping the bad firms a safe, ethical and hospitable raft to jump on to…

  • Thank you for this great post, Todd. As with any profession, there are certainly members of the PR industry who need to step it up or get out of the game. It is my hope that social media continues to make PR pros more accountable for what they do. Accountability is going to be the key for getting, and keeping, the bad apples out of our industry.

    Tessa Carroll

  • Rex Riepe says:

    Kinda curious who’s touting PR as “the core driver” of social media. In a “getting business involved in it” sense? Otherwise we’re going to have a hard time topping that as the most ridiculous statement of 2010. But I digress.

    Back in college, I was an engineering major for a while before switching to PR. I thought it was interesting that both majors had mandatory ethics courses.

    Engineers dealt with the ethics of competence. Don’t do something right and a bridge could fall down. That made a lot of sense. But PR was different– the classes were geared towards a much more basic “don’t lie, don’t misrepresent, etc.”

    In PR, there’s no bridge falling down. I guess it’s easier for people to get lost in their actions without solid consequences to grasp.

    You also raise a great point about accreditation. Too often, companies only want results and a fall guy. Crappy, shady agencies make great fall guys during a media shitstorm.

  • Martha Gibiser Shea says:

    You’re right, Todd. And it’s exactly what I thought when a new pr firm was announced, Bristol Palin’s. Wow, talk about setting the bar low.

  • Todd, There are bad apples in any profession, just gotta weed them out of the mix. ITA that social media is pushing this forward with blogs and posts that call out bad pitches and practitioners. Jessica is right, what we do is getting more transparent. The clearer the picture, the harder it is for the bad apples to hide.

    • Martha Gibiser Shea says:

      Very true; and the object lesson can be said in two words “Bristol Palin.” Yup, she’s got great cred to open a pr firm, right? Makes all of us have to work harder…

  • Akash Sharma says:

    You are damn right in the message you convey here, I don’t come from a PR background but this point on a whole should also be considered as free tools don’t mean anything{or anyone} sells or gets talked about.
    Because people know which voice should be given a backing shout and which ones should be ignored and thats why we have more people like you who know what they do really well.

  • DAVE says:

    There are groups of hacks in every profession. It’s the job of the elite to lead by example. Natural selection will, inevitably, kill off some of these hacks over time. But, we shouldn’t sink to their level and start cussing them out of the profession.

  • Todd –

    Great post, and as a public relations agency person, I couldn’t agree more. There are a lot of awful practitioners out there that are smucking it up for the rest of us. But, I do agree that I think it is getting better.
    With more and more communications occurring online it’s a necessity to be transparent, and because of transparency it’s becoming easier to spot the weak links and separate out the skilled from the unskilled. We’ll get there soon.

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