How serious are PRs about being genuinely professional?

So many embargoed press releases...

A simple, musing, rhetorical, tweet on Monday evening about PRs who send out press releases under embargo prompted a wide-ranging conversation on Twitter among a handful of people about professional behaviour, education and training, and being prepared for the PR workplace.

Sending out press releases under embargo isn’t an unusual practice. On the contrary, it can be a worthwhile activity for a PR professional, agency or client-side, when you want to enable journalists and others you believe can help tell your story be as prepared as possible and be ready to go live at an agreed future time.

What prompted my tweet was the sense of despair I feel all too often these days upon receiving press releases under embargo from PRs I don’t know or with whom I have no actual relationship.

And relationship is key, in my view. I’ve always regarded making any public announcement under embargo part of a process of trust-building, where both parties to an embargo have, beforehand, mutually agreed to respect the terms of it.

That requires some kind of prior personal connection, either physical or virtual, between two parties that is the building block for a relationship of some kind.

What I see nowadays, though, has nothing to do with relationship (nor, hence, trust-building or even respect) when I get press releases embargoed for days forward from people I don’t know and with whom I’ve not agreed any terms of any embargo.

They just send out the press releases anyway, usually mail-merged in bulk to distribution lists built from Vocus or Cision subscription databases – in spite of clear guidance from those two respected firms that you’re not supposed to do that – and with little or no thought to understanding whether the press release contains information that is at least relevant to the receiver.

Relevance is a highly significant aspect of this. The worst case is when I get an embargoed press release from a PR I don’t know, and it’s totally irrelevant to me.

Remember An Inconvenient PR Truth’s push against irrelevant press releases a few years ago? Go on, remind yourself.

An Inconvenient PR Truth from RealWire on Vimeo.

I’ve written about this topic a lot over the years, filed under the ‘Spam’ category.

So, to my near-rhetorical question: “Why should I respect embargoes?”

I do, actually, but in a passive sense – there’s no way I will write or say anything about a company or its product or service, embargo or no embargo, on information I get sent this way. Ever. I just delete the email and any attachments that come with it, and move on.

So musing on Twitter provoked some others to share their thoughts on the topic. Quite a few like minds, thank goodness, starting with Barbara Nixon and David Kamerer in the US:

And leading to a lengthy discussion involving Gabrielle Laine-Peters, Chris Owen and Paula Stei in the UK:

Gabrielle captured the scores of tweets into a Storify curation so please review that for the full conversation flow, or see the curation embedded at the end of this post.

There are three aspects from the conversation that have been rattling around my head since yesterday:

  1. The practice of sending out press releases under embargo as I’ve described here is anachronistic at best, unprofessional at worst, especially at a time when authenticity and relationships are two watchwords for creating the climate of trust that every PR professional surely ought to be striving to do (read the Edelman Trust Barometer 2014 to see why).
  2. That leads to focusing on the word ‘professional’ and how PRs clearly wish to be perceived as such by others, according to the latest ‘State of the Profession’ survey from the CIPR, published last week, saying, “Whilst nine out of ten respondents wish to be acknowledged as ‘professional’, results indicate a practice which seemingly struggles to embrace its desired professional ambitions.”
  3. To that end, CIPR President Stephen Waddington issued a challenge to CIPR members (one that every PR should pay heed to, CIPR member or otherwise): “How serious are you about putting this ambition [to be considered a professional] into practice?

It would be an easy matter to stay in exasperation mode and dismiss all of this as so much snow in Hell.

Even Stephen thinks it may take quite a while to see change.

Yet perhaps now, there’s a chance that some people in, or about to become part of, the public relations profession care enough that they themselves will be the architects of change.

Consider Paula Stei’s comments in the Twitter conversation yesterday. She’s a third-year PR student at university, who has a clear view on what feels right or not, and questions some behaviours. Maybe Paula and others in her generation can be the drivers of change. I’m certainly optimistic that I wouldn’t get an embargoed press release from Paula if we didn’t know each other.

From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow, as an old saying has it. The meaning is clear – great things may come from small beginnings. Behaviour change in how you do press releases is a good example of a small beginning that can lead to bigger things.

Maybe it’s changing a small thing such as this that can get you on the road to being perceived as a professional.

  • Related: In this week’s FIR podcast episode 744, my co-host Shel Holtz and I discuss the CIPR survey and Stephen Waddington’s challenge, looking at other options that professional associations may consider for the big-picture of professionalism, including attaining accreditation or passing an examination as a condition and requirement for a member to be able to practice public relations. That discussion starts about 16 minutes and 50 seconds into the show.

And for the Twitter conversation that prompted this post, here’s the Storify curation of tweets by Gabrielle Laine-Peters:

About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.