It’s time to ban the word “publicist” from the PR lexicon. And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the term “spin doctor” too. Neither expression does the profession any good.
Seeking “publicity” implies that there is no strategy underlying the efforts, there is no messaging being undertaken – it is publicity at all costs, no matter that the reputation of an individual or brand may be tarnished or not. It implies a complete lack of strategic intervention and conjures up the Oscar Wilde quote: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
Michael Shea, a career diplomat and press secretary to Britain’s Elizabeth II, has been credited with coining the term “spin doctor” when describing his role as press secretary as that of a "quasi-spin doctor". But, creating “spin” implies manipulating the facts to suit the business or individual which, in turn, suggests dishonesty and an attempt to control the news.
Newsflash – the adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is, in fact, a fallacy. There are MANY examples of bad publicity being just that: bad publicity.
We only have to look at some recent examples in South African social media – such as Penny Sparrow’s racist comments on Facebook and Gareth Cliff’s efforts to defend free speech. Both have been the subject of bad news and tarnished reputations. The latter is suing his erstwhile client M-Net for R25m, for firing him (or cancelling his contract). Even if Cliff were to win his court battle, his reputation has suffered irreparable harm and is unlikely to have the same value as before. He will need to hope that people have short memories if he wishes to rebuild his career.
And note, it does not matter if Cliff is not guilty of being a racist – the perception has been created and he will struggle to shake it.
PR practitioners who describe themselves as publicists do the industry no favours. PR involves adopting a holistic, strategic approach to managing a reputation. It involves assessing the essence of a brand (and, yes, people can be brands) and creating a framework within which a brand interacts with its stakeholders. Managing a reputation entails aligning the general perceptions about a brand with its real DNA. It means being truthful with stakeholders, having an open and honest conversation with them. And it also means listening to them.
Reputation management involves identifying other people’s attitudes toward a brand – how they feel and what they say – and aiming to ensure that the general consensus is in line with the brand’s reality across all publics.
PR and reputation management needs to be carefully thought through, two-way strategic communication. It shouldn’t be any other way.
I would love to hear your comments on this.
From the desk of Gillian Findlay
Economist, data translator, communicator and fascinated by the world around us.