Five myths about PR I want to debunk

Over the last 25+ years working in a variety of consulting roles and for a wide range of organisations, I’ve noticed a few enduring myths about PR seem to prevail. It’s about time they were killed off for good.

1. All publicity is good publicity

Staggeringly, people still cite this as if it was gospel, despite the mountain of evidence to show otherwise.  Its origin is unclear but some attribute the saying to famous showman Phileas T Barnum and his eponymous circus; others to Oscar Wilde’s wry quip – you know the one: “the only thing worse than being talked about ……”, etc. Ryanair’s maverick and outspoken CEO Michael O’Leary has often said that all the negative publicity his company receives is helpful. But if that was really true, why is he taking legal action against those who talk to the media about safety concerns? For me, there is only one exception where this mantra holds any weight: if your aim is to be notorious – like Russell Brand, for example.

2. Having good media contacts is very important

If you have what they consider to be a really good story, journalists won’t care* who offers it to them. Being a trusted source helps, but no reporter will complain about having to check and double check an unknown source if the story is going to win them plaudits from an editor or colleagues. Who writes about what, for whom, was once much harder to determine and took time. With personal blogs, web sites, low-cost media databases, Twitter and other resources, you can quickly work out who you need to know, and start quickly building new relationships. The only circumstance where I’d say good contacts are important is when you’re in trouble and taking flack. Journalists will still write about you, but those with whom you’ve built ‘relationship capital’ will probably cut you a little slack. 

3. Sector experience matters

Maybe it does, maybe not. It depends what you need as a client or employer. And often you won’t know what’s really needed until it’s highlighted to you after thorough questioning and a proper situation analysis. Those who specialise in a certain sector might say ‘that won’t work here’ because they only have the narrow view and experience gained from sector specialisation. Someone from outside the sector might bring fresh ideas and a fearless attitude to trying something new and original. That might be just what your business needs to achieve standout. In my experience, most smart people can pick up the important things they need to know about a sector in a fairly short time. 

4. What you’ve achieved for others matters

Think about the warning in small print in most financial services advertising: past performance is not a guarantee of future returns. If a PR professional has worked miracles for someone else, that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically achieve the same for you. You don’t have all the facts about the circumstances that led to such results, and you’re unlikely to be able to gather enough of them to give you a clear-enough picture. So, by all means, ask about results for others in similar circumstances to you. Just don’t attach too much importance it.     

5. PR is all about communications

Much of visible PR activity certainly involves communications planning, techniques and tools, but it’s wrong to think of PR as just that.  PR is as much concerned with reputations and relationships, and that involves what you do as much as what you say. For that reason, a good deal of PR activity involves consultancy, project creation and management, and media monitoring services – much of it behind the scenes. As a head of PR for a large, well-known business once memorably put it: “my job is to tell the chief executive ‘your bum looks big in that’”. Bringing the outside view inside, and speaking truth to power, are two other vital roles PR professionals play.

What other PR myths should be debunked? Use the comments box below and I’ll aim to tackle those in a future post

* “No single soul in this world is really an enemy of the editor or unwelcome if he has fresh, live news to tell.” Extract from the 1932 book Journalism, by Some Masters of the Craft


  • Davina K. Brewer  

    Must thank Judy Gombita for sending me this.. it’s so in my wheelhouse. (And nice to meet you Andy.)

    I think #1 and #2 speak for themselves; PR is so much more than just media relations and publicity. News is news and if you’ve got real news for the right outlet at the right time, provided w/ helpful information it will be considered. I can tell you from personal experience I’ve run into #3 and #4 so, so many times — from both sides. Having clients impressed at how adaptable I was at a new industry, which cracked me up. We learn – and in learning, find better ways to tell stories, brand the message, position the company. Then there’s having others not consider me b/c my resume of past performance didn’t hit all their keyword checkboxes, as if that resume will do the work.

    Now #5 – why I got it. Because I as much as anyone have trouble defining what I do — context being tricky, not wanting to limit myself, etc. — I’ve been guilty of truncating myself. On Twitter I’ve been known to share something to the effect of “Communications = PR.” My bad, though it’s never been my intention to imply “JUST” only to simplify.

    PR is absotively more than ‘just’ communications. My point in typing that is to argue against that myth that PR has no business being involved elsewhere in business when that same business’s #1 problem is – drumroll for drama – lack of communication. I’m trying to champion that R&D needs to communicate w/ Customer Service; that Media Relations team does need to know what’s going on w/ Investor Relations; that please oh please recognize the front line IS the bottom line, therefore HR needs PR in order for a company to recruit, train, hire, employ top talent. PR, real PR, is by far the best option to unify, to integrate, to unite an organization to its common purpose. And when companies relegate PR under the “Marketing and Sales” dept, which is under the “Biz Development” division, they limit and silo some of their best communicators. If you’re not communicating, you’re not doing business. ITA w/ you that we speak truth to power, that PR is the voice that sees the forest, the trees and most importantly, the context, the relationship of the two and what they mean to the company. FWIW.

  • Andy M Turner  

    Thanks for stopping by Davina and for your thoughts on this post. Regarding #5, I think we share the same perspective about the role PR should but perhaps seldom has. HR, in particular, needs our help. They are usually assigned responsibility for the ’employer brand’, but many have no idea what branding is; others are completely siloed so have little idea of what’s going on outside their function.

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