Gallup poll reveals that public questions PR industry credibility: are PR practitioners to blame?

A Gallup poll released in August indicated that the advertising and PR industries aren’t viewed very favorably by the American public.

One-third of respondents voiced a positive view of the advertising/pr industry (6 percent “very,” 27 percent “somewhat”). Twenty-seven percent were “neutral.” Twenty-five percent expressed a “somewhat negative view,” while 11 percent were “very negative.” (The rest didn’t venture an opinion.)

You might argue that, on balance, the numbers are only slightly negative – total positives were 33% while total negatives were 36% – and the AdWeek story cited here certainly goes out of their way to put a chirpy spin on the results (no real surprise there, I suppose).

A closer look at the actual Gallup story, though, presents a picture that should give professionals in the marketing, advertising and corporate communications sectors pause. Have a look at the overall numbers.


For starters, the numbers are down a little from last year, despite AdWeek‘s note that “the numbers aren’t significantly different from those yielded by last summer’s edition of this annual survey.” The thing that’s most striking, though, is that we’re talking about the industry that’s dedicated to establishing and promoting public images. Perhaps this is a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes – to be sure, ad/PR companies sometimes devote more attention to their clients’ brands than they do their own.

But I suspect that the issues run a lot deeper, and that what we’re seeing is a legitimate public distaste for what we do for a living. (Yes, we – I’m a Marketing Director for a financial services firm by day, and advertising and PR are both functions that fall within my purview.) It’s nice that we rank ahead of lawyers, oil & gas companies, Big Pharma, banks, the government and, one presumes, prostitutes and organized crime, but I’m not sure we profit in the long run by setting the bar low and congratulating ourselves on small victories. If the issues do, as I suspect, issue from fundamental ethical flaws in the way marketing and communication pros do business, then we’re going to see our already unimpressive approval numbers eroding. And as that happens, our effectiveness is necessarily compromised, as well.

Context: The Collapse of Journalism

There is a strong argument to be made that even if our industry is contributing to the Fall of Rome, it isn’t entirely our fault. This isn’t a satisfying answer, but it’s something we need to factor in.

As most of us are well aware, the once bold, once proud practice of journalism has fallen upon hard times. Many argue, quite persuasively, that the press is is either dead or on life support. My colleague at Scholars & Rogues, Dr. Denny Wilkins, has been one of the most astute chroniclers and commentators on the state of journalism in recent years, and his analyses of the ways in which corporate ownership has stripped the industry of its ability to adequately perform functions essential to a working society have been as depressing as they have penetrating. You can review his entire S&R catalog here, but I’d call your attention to three pieces in particular:

The implications from the PR side of the table are well known to all of us: newspapers, magazines, TV stations and new media outlets need “content.” There are now thousands fewer reporters on the job and the ones that remain are simply too overrun to get out and beat the sidewalks looking for original stories. This creates opportunities for the PR pro, who can help those frazzled reporters fill up dozens of column inches or as much broadcast time as they’re willing to allot.

Once upon a time the reporter and editor dictated what was news. In the brave new world of content, the power has shifted to the organizations with the time and resources to develop stories. That would be us, America’s marketing and PR professionals.

The Ascension of PR

These emerging dynamics are good for our clients and for our own careers, but as citizens – as parents, as members of often troubled communities, as voters and activists and leaders of a wide range of civic entities – we have to stop and ask if said dynamics are good for the society. (Please note that I haven’t even delved into the violently corrosive intersection of PR and politics, a place where the context described above can go from bad to worse in a hurry.)

The particulars of your particular client aside for a second, the question boils down to how well the society is served by a press where all the content is driven by corporations and PR firms. And when I say “all,” I’m not exaggerating as much as I’d like to be. The question has been addressed a number of times, and the results indicate that in roughly half the cases (or more), news stories originate with PR practitioners.

  • One of the oldest but most-cited of these studies was published in 1973 by Leon Sigal who reported that “almost 60 percent of the editorial content of the New York Times and Washington Post are generated by public relations efforts.”
  • A widely cited mid-1980s study of several leading newspapers reported by the Columbia Journalism Review “found that 45 percent of stories came either verbatim from PR releases or with perfunctory additional reporting.”
  • A 1999 national survey conducted by PR Week and cited in Wilcox’s Public Relations Writing and Media Techniques “found that almost 60 percent of the responding journalists used news releases `all the time’ or `often.'” And, almost a third of the respondents also admitted that they had come to rely more heavily on public relations sources for their news stories than they had five years earlier.
  • Another survey reported by Wilcox was done Jericho Promotions of New York. It involved more than 5000 questionnaires sent to journalists worldwide. 38 percent of those responding said “they got at least half of their story ideas from public relations people. The percentage was even higher among editors of lifestyle, entertainment, and health sections of newspapers.”
  • Other smaller and more limited studies focusing on other media and conducted at various times during the last two decades reported anywhere from 35 to 75 percent of the analyzed media’s editorial content came directly or indirectly from public relations sources.

Implications for the Marketing and Professional Communication Industries

I don’t want to overstate the case, but PR has assumed a dominant role in communicating the mediated reality of the world we live in, and that unfortunately moves us front and center in ways that are more obvious over time. Obviously the average citizen watching the evening news isn’t as media savvy about brands, messaging, pitching and placement as we are, but even the daftest of couch potatoes has probably cultivated at least a vague sense for the not-so-invisible hands of commerce at work in the media.

To the extent that the reality depicted through the media is an unsatisfying one – and right now, between political partisanship (it’s hard to believe that anybody was able to tolerate TV ad breaks during the recent election cycle) and the economy (joblessness, bailouts, crises like the BP debacle, etc.), the picture of the world that PR is increasingly associated with is as ugly as it’s been in a long time – it’s only natural that public discontent attaches to … advertising, PR and marketing.

I can’t tell my fellow industry professionals how to behave, but I believe that the August Gallup poll raises some questions of both a practical and ethical nature. Unfortunately, we can all act in ways that are perfectly in line with all industry ethical canons and still contribute to the problem. If you look a few slots below Ad/PR on that list above you’ll find the legal field, and in so many cases attorneys wind up looking terrible simply because they provide the representation that our Constitution insists on. Many of them may step into court knowing that they’re defending the guilty, but the alternative is what? A rampant police state? I imagine that’s a tough spot to be in.

I’m sure some of my colleagues feel guided by a professional code that operates on similar principles. The truth, though, is that while the consensus PR Trainwreck of the Year, BP’s Tony Hayward, would be entitled to a lawyer if charged with a crime, in the court of public opinion there is no such right.

The question then becomes, at what cost do we tie our credibility to his?

When Gallup conducts this poll in years to come I’d like to see my profession moving up the rankings, but that isn’t likely to happen if the public continues to sense our presence defending the indefensible and transforming the 24-hour news cycle into a 24/7 spin cycle.


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