How serious are PRs about being genuinely professional?

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:

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Stuart Bruce

    Unfortunately I think Stephen is right when he says a generation. One problem I had when running a PR company was knocking bad practice out of new recruits. They’d been taught bad practice by previous employers such as spamming journalists and the infamous ‘phone round’ to ask did you get my press release. I’m a part-time PR lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University and one problem I’ve witnessed is students who’ve been taught to do it right and then go on work experience and get told to ignore what they’ve been taught!

    I like constantly getting ‘bad pitches’ to my blog as it provides me with a wealth of new material to use in training to show what not to do. Really good examples are probably about one in 50 or maybe even one in a 100.

    • Neville Hobson

      You’ve identified where much of the problem lies, Stuart. Sadly, Stephen’s “generation estimate” looks feasible in terms of addressing the matter on a large scale.

      Still, belief, confidence, courage and the ability to do something.could be catalysts for those acorns I mentioned. And that’s not dependent on any particular generation.

  2. niallcook

    I recall very similar conversations 10 years ago. Then it was journalists on the receiving end of bad practice, now it’s bloggers like yourself. I disagree that it’s about the professionalism of individual PRs though – that’s far too subjective. For many, professionalism is about skills and competencies, and these PRs could quite rightly argue that they are doing exactly what is expected of them by their employers and clients. It should therefore be the agencies and clients that we are calling to account, not the poor account executive who gets given the job of sending out the news release, regardless of whether they think it’s the ‘professional’ thing to do or not.

    And as for Vocus and Cision, if they are so against mail merge news distribution, why do they give PRs the ability to do just that? Cision even regards it as a feature in their sales materials: “Target hundreds of thousands of media contacts by country, language, interests, topics or focus to identify and reach journalists around the globe.”

    So if it really is about professionalism, it’s about the entire industry – clients, agencies and the supply chain – not just the individual.

    • Stuart Bruce

      Niall is right. All too often it is not about the individuals. There isn’t much an account executive or manager can do if they have a director telling them to do the wrong thing. That was the point of my comment. People can know what the right thing is, but still end up doing the wrong thing. Although I’m not so sure about clients. The PR person talking to the client must have a pretty poor relationship with the client if they can’t explain why it won’t work and persuade them to accept advice to do something more effective. In reality I don’t think most clients think or care too much about the actual mechanics.

    • Neville Hobson

      I don’t accept that rebuttal, Niall, not by a long shot. It is about individual actions, individual accountability, individual responsibility of those poor accounts execs you mention as well as those who lead them. It’s not about “bloggers like me,” as you put it, but all about behaviours of those who have responsibility for communicating information about their clients or employers that take the form of the press releases I spoke of, and the unprofessional behaviours I highlighted.

      Yes, it is about the entire industry, too – so we can agree on that point.

      • niallcook

        It wasn’t intended as a rebuttal Neville, nor an attempt to make it “about” bloggers. My point was that it’s not a new problem. We will have to disagree about where the responsibility lies, however. You and I have both seen first hand how the PR agency machine operates and I have personally seen PRs attempt to convince their superiors that this is not the right way to do things, yet have no option but to do the wrong thing.

        • Neville Hobson

          Thanks, Niall. Indeed it is not a new problem. The responsibility for it is broad and shared – all of the people you, Stuart and others have mentioned. So everyone understands the problem and there seems to be a broad agreement on who causes it.

          Yet no one seems able to fix it. What a sorry state. Is the PR profession really so broken, as Drew tweeted yesterday?

  3. Jonathan Bean

    Excellent post Neville. I think @wadds comment is probably spot on. It will take a generation and will go hand in hand with the top communicator in the client company taking a place at the top table (as you discussed in last weeks FIR), becoming more strategic and ensuring the tactics that either themselves or their agencies use are in line with the new way of communicating. This ultimately links with the tangible outcomes and objectives of a communications / PR department which I believe are in transition as we speak. Exciting opportunities ahead for the profession but lots of legacy “best practice” which needs to be retired if those opportunities are to be seized.

  4. Kevin Anselmo

    Many of us say we do “media relations”, but few probably think about the very definition of these words. It seems obvious to say that the term “relations”, in a business context, means establishing a connection. It is hard to see how sending random untargeted embargoed releases personifies this definition. Perhaps it would be a good idea to start the professionalizing of PR with a simple trip to the dictionary.

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