Poll Dancing: PR’s Perceived Image

A new Gallup poll, as reported in PR Daily, reveals that more people have a negative view of  PR and advertising. Such polls about the public’s view of PR  and other professions are common. That PR is viewed “negatively” is also not unusual. But that’s the quick conclusion and not the full story.

First of all, a little critical thinking about polls, which are often taken as gospel or solid science but are really a mere snapshot. First, this  poll could have a context effect in that PR is considered along side  other professions. Is this a valid view of PR or one relative to other professions?

Also, PR and advertising are lumped  together. While the professions overlap (our major at GVSU combines them), the public view of each may be different.

The scale–positive, neutral, negative–also indicates  this is not a real measure of attitudes about the various professions. Mere positive/negative reaction is not an indicator of valence, or strength of opinion. The high neutrals  on most responses could indicate a lack of knowledge. Put yourself in a survey-takers position: are you positive/neutral/negative on the “retail industry”? I worked in a grocery store during high school and college and I shop for groceries–I have no idea what my opinion is about the grocery industry. Far more people have experiences with groceries than they do with PR, so on what basis do they rate PR?

That’s the biggest question, which goes unanswered in this poll–what are the CAUSES of public opinion about PR. I can answer  that a bit from other research.

This summer I was part  of a panel at the annual Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in St. Louis discussing “PR in Pop Culture.” The panel was based off the work of Joe Saltzman who directs the Image of the Journalist in Pop Culture (IJPC) at  the University of Southern California. Professor Saltzman also completed an impressive and comprehensive DVD of the portrayal of PR in movies and television. Others on the panel shared their own research on PR’s image in broadcast entertainment as well as novels. Essentially, public relations has been portrayed negatively or incompletely over the years. However, the researchers did say it was getting better more recently. But we can conclude that the entertainment media stereotypes of PR is a partial cause of the public’s perception.

Lots  of other research shows that the news media doesn’t give fair shake to the reality of what PR people do. Journalists typically encounter only the media relations aspect  of the job and tend to portray that as the full story. They are also prone to describing PR with negative cliche such as “stunt” or “gimmick,” or they diminish the value of PR by saying “just” PR or “mere” PR.

However, while media cultivation theory would say this affects the public’s view about PR, a recent academic study shows it’s not so bad. Respondents to a telephone survey viewed PR as having an important role in society and disagreed that it is damage control or an attempt to hide something. They did see it as primarily media relations, but at least the view wasn’t mostly negative as the recent Gallup poll suggests.

As I noted on the panel about PR in pop culture, public attitudes are not usually strong. People with no real understanding or experience with PR answer the survey because they were asked to and quickly select an easy response, often with little considered thought. Because attitudes are not strong, they also are not stable–they can change quickly. I’ve witnessed this more  than once, such as when a colleague in a faculty meeting comments that something they saw was “just PR” and then after the meeting asks me if one of my students can help them promote something they’re working on. It’s like people who are critical of lawyers until they need one.

So the lesson is don’t get too emotional about these polls. Maybe what we need is a poll about the public’s attitude about polls.

Finally, if you want to help improve the public’s education and therefore  perception of the PR profession, I have two suggestions:

  • Get a copy of the book “It’s Not Just PR” and route it through your office and share it or recommend it to friends;
  • Pay attention to PRSA’s campaign “The Business Case for Public Relations” and participate as you can by sharing information with colleagues in your organization or with your clients. Rosanna Fisk (@Fiskey on Twitter), a fellow panelist  with me in St. Louis, is leading this effort.

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