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Will PR Industry Learn from the Media’s Troubles?

By: Andy Marken

In his nearly 25 years in the advertising/public relations field, Andy has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Prior to forming Marken Communications in mid-1977, Andy was vice president of Bozell & Jacobs and its predecessor agencies. During his 12 years with these agencies, he developed and coordinated a wide variety of highly visible and successful promotional campaigns and activities for clients. A graduate of Iowa State University, Andy received his Bachelor's Degree with majors in Radio & Television and Journalism. Widely published in the industry and trade press, he is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

"They [reporters] don't climb the stairs anymore, they don't understand the shoe-leather, they don't teach that in their high-class schools. "They are highly trained people who sit in their offices and write term papers. They won't sully themselves going to a greasy housing project or stand out in the rain for a few hours."

     Jimmy Breslin, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist
No public relations professional can have any feeling but pain for The New York Times, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Hartford Courant or other publications that have been painted with the recent ethical scandals. We have faced and continue to face our own corporate governance and professional issues.

For the most part, news people radio, TV, print whether they handle investigative, food, business, sports, weather or other reporting and whether they are editors, reporters, columnists or reviewers have a common bond. While they compete for readership, viewership, listenership and stories; they also seem to share the hurt when “one of their own” is damaged. When one crosses the ethics line most of the people in news organizations feel it damages the credibility and value of all journalists.

Unlike newsroom staffers, public relations people tend to distance themselves from the problems saying that was him or her…not us. How fortunate we are not to have a code of ethics as journalists do yet still feel a transgression by one doesn’t affect us all.

But it wasn’t the marketing, finance, operations or engineering manager who developed the public relations strategy for Enron, Adelphi, MCI or Martha Stewart. It was professional public relations people inside and outside the organizations.

Pain or Relief

Did we feel a professional pain? Or was it a sigh of relief?

Our response has typically been that we now have the opportunity to provide management with “objective” professional counsel and guidance. By implication we say “those” people weren’t professional.


In our opinion the problem is that along the way in our struggle to be raise our craft to the level of professionalism, public relations practitioners have lost touch with our roots.

To paraphrase Breslin’s statement…”PR people don’t climb the stairs anymore. They study crisis management. They study positioning. They study cultural management. They study political and international science. They do everything but get their hands greasy researching and writing.”

Ten 20 years ago public relations practitioners studied journalism and became proficient reporters and writers. Then they took what few public relations courses that were offered along with studies in speech, psychology, business management and other disciplines. Many began as journalists before moving to the PR profession. They carried with them that journalistic and writing training and background.

Two Codes

They also carried with them the code of journalism ethics that had been drilled into them every year they were in school. They practiced it as they researched, wrote and edited articles and columns. When they moved to “the dark side” as publicists they continued to write well and with integrity.

Spin doctoring, cultural messaging and issue management came later.

While PRSA has a credible code of ethics how widely is it embraced and enforced not by the association but by our peers?

You have to wonder how much of today’s communications activities are designed to educate, inform and pursued our various market publics?

How much is designed to increase stockholder value?

We can say our job is different but journalists face the same struggle public relations professionals have satisfying both shareholders and their wide ranging publics. They also have a major advantage over PR people. Good writing is the first requirement for getting a job in the field, not just another checkmark on the recruiter’s form.

The publications also took immediate and public action.

The New York Times and other media outlets reassured their internal and external publics including stockholders that their first was concern was their charter for existence. Rather than clouding the issues and denying the problems not that others may not exist -- they reinforced their standards and enhanced their credibility and integrity.

Can we say this is the case for most of the public and private enterprises?

Credibility Is a Constant

Our profession and the people we work for should take a lesson from The New York Times and other journalistic organizations. Credibility can’t be a sometimes convenience. Addressing problems quickly, accurately and openly reinforces stakeholder faith and value.

But then they do have an advantage over public relations practitioners. They realize their shareholder value rests almost entirely on clear, concise and factual communications. They respect the power of the written and spoken word.

Despite the recent rash of public disclosure and rapid response to correct the situation we believe that for the most part the media has people who are honorable, industrious and follow journalism’s generally accepted professional guidelines.

Now if public relations practitioners will forget the elevator and climb the stairs…

© Copyright 2003, G.A.Marken, Marken Communications

Other Articles by Andy Marken

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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