Why Does the Word “PR” Put Out Such a Negative Vibe?

To a lot of people, PR has a bad rap: It’s deceptive. It’s “spin.” It’s manipulation. Where do such perceptions come from? Are they true? And most importantly, since nobody wants to be manipulated, could negative consumer opinions of PR keep them from receiving a message? What do PR professionals need to know about public perceptions of the PR industry, and how should they respond?

Below, consider the origin and purpose of PR, what the majority of consumers think about it and how this information affects the power and successfulness of the practice.

Is PR Manipulative?

The idea that PR is a form of manipulation has been around since the beginning of the industry. Back in the early days, when nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, moved from helping with the American propaganda effort to famously finding a way to make cigarettes attractive to women, it was fueled by an understanding of unconscious desires and crowd psychology. Convinced that emotions, not rational logic, was what drove human behavior, he hypothesized, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Control and regiment—strong words to describe the goals of public relations. Yet today, the same man who used those terms is the man called the “father of PR.” In modern public relations, “many of Bernays’s techniques, such as press releases, product placement and tie-ins are still prevalent,” says Stephanie Draper at The Guardian. “He pioneered a whole new way of doing business.” Nonetheless, “There are all sorts of questions around this sort of mass persuasion – the act of converting active citizens into passive consumers (and aiming to control them in the process) doesn’t support a more sustainable approach and some of the methods are opaque and manipulative,” Draper adds.

Nobody Wants to Feel Manipulated

You don’t have to look too hard to find people dissatisfied with typical PR. Frustrated with the PR team at Facebook, MG Siegler says of them at TechCrunch they are “they are probably the worst in the industry when it comes to manipulation, double-speak, and all around slimeballishness.” In his post and elsewhere online, there’s a general consensus that such descriptions are not good and that they are the norm in public relations activities.

Roy Greenslade of The Guardian concurs, “In my experience, PRs have not lied but several of them have been extremely economical with the truth. And some have spun negatives into positives with a breathtakingly cavalier attitude towards the reality.”

So Then Why Does PR Still Work?

Even in the B2B realm, businesses of all sizes and industries, from high visibility clothing providers to electrical glove makers, still choose to implement PR into their marketing campaigns—despite negative perceptions and public talk of manipulation. So if people today think PR is manipulative and if manipulation is something people don’t like, why is it so useful for businesses? How does PR still effectively influence purchasing decisions and product loyalty? Why?

Reason #1: People Trust Honest Praise

We all know it’s true—hearing positive press about a product, service, place or brand means something to us. Explaining why it was PR, not advertising, that originally appealed to him when opening his restaurant, Bruce Buschel of Southfork Kitchen writes in the New York Times, “I had never met anyone who went to a new restaurant based on advertisements; feature stories, positive reviews and good gossip served as better pathways to the hearts and minds of foodies. And faux foodies. And weekend foodies.” Buschel hits on an important tool in PR–finding people who genuinely like a product or service and getting them to talk about it. This type of publicity doesn’t come across as contrived; rather, people tend to trust it.

Reason #2: People Trust Transparency

When a consumer believes a company is being honest, that company automatically becomes more trustworthy. Citing the example of a McDonalds campaign gone bad for misunderstanding the value of authentic messaging, Tara Coomans at Business 2 Community says, “If you’re going to put it out there, you gotta back it up. Gone are the days of manufacturing stories that can’t be supported by the product or the company’s actual culture.” People want to see what is true and real about a product or service, they want to know who the company is and what it stands for. In today’s round-the-clock Internet world, there are more and more ways to use this to a company’s advantage: by getting the message out about its quality procedures and valuable products, a business boosts its reputation and connects with customers in a way that doesn’t seem false.

“I enjoy marketing’s movement toward more public relations—and social media in particular—because I think these tactics are more authentic, and I also believe that companies using them are held more accountable to be truthful and ethical,” says Chicago business owner Nick Sarillo at the Council of Public Relations Firms. Sarillo, who made headlines last fall for his public announcement that his pizza restaurants were in financial trouble (and then saw a $50K increase in sales as a response), believes that “the more transparent and authentic companies are, the better public relations is going to work.” As Sarillo’s story illustrates, more and more, the public is asking for a real picture of what happens with a business, not a packaged one, and when the business gives that, it can mean powerful responses.

Reason #3: People Don’t Know They’re Being Manipulated

And of course, there’s a possible third reason: that people sometimes don’t realize they’re being manipulated. Nichola Stott says at Search Engine Watch, “[Consumers] like to buy that product because we think the brand association makes us sexier, healthier, fitter, or smarter; not because you deliberately contrived to market and position your message to make me think that way.” In other words, Stott says, people want to believe they’re making decisions on their own, without being told to, and that could mean when PR is able to affect decisions subtly and without overt coercion, that is when it’s most successful.

What do you think? When PR provides powerful results–when it “works–is it because of earning consumers’ trust? Or is it a matter of convincing people that buying or using a certain product was their own idea?

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