The Economist burns the entire PR industry. Hmmm…

Originally posted on Dec. 22, 2010 on the Olson Communications company blog. Republished with permission. See original post here, and follow Olson Communication on Twitter: @olson_comm

Quick: What’s the most respected publication in the world? Probably The Economist. In an article published last week, The Economist referenced public relations as “the dark arts” and gave one of the most excruciating critiques of the industry I’ve read. Man, who needs PR?

Sidenote: Does The Economist have a public relations team? Click here to contact them. (Also: Want to work on their PR team? Check out seven LinkedIn profiles of The Economist’s PR people to see how your resume stacks up.)

The article gives credit to the public relations industry for its meteoric rise and enormous relevance in 21st century business, adding that PR’s size and global reach is perhaps excessive.

Many of The Economist’s most damning critiques of PR come from historical examples of “reputation laundering” for tyrannical governments and corrupt businesses — without mentioning anything good, you know, like all the PR campaigns that have reduced global hunger, American obesity, HIV, poverty, etc. They paint a pretty arguably inaccurate portrait, as PRSA noted in its rebuttal, of PR as the selfish little sibling of advertising and marketing.

Nevertheless, and despite any of my criticisms, this article is worth reading for anyone interested in the industry. But first, a few points:

1) Anecdotes need context. The article excellently catalogues some of the PR industry’s most shameful moments, while implying that historical examples of bad behavior by PR professionals sum up the entire industry. Sure, these examples are relevant. But we could play that game all day writing at length about the misbehavior of babysitters, police officers, schoolteachers, lawyers, firefighters, soldiers… and journalists. Obviously, all those people play vital, irreplaceable roles in society. Just like PR folks.

2) We all need PR. No business, government, newspaper, church, nonprofit or public figure could ever survive this planet, let alone the news cycle, without public relations. Duh! Even polite conversations, Facebook profiles, job interviews and first dates require niceties that are arguably forms of PR. Public relations is, of course, all about relationship management.

3) PR is essential to democracy. We’re in the free market of ideas, and everyone should be able to compete – even those who don’t believe in the free market of ideas. The Economist generally supports free and fair markets. To its credit, the article does note that PR is, for the most part, a gigantic free and fair market: Greenpeace can compete with Exxon Mobil all it wants, and even a ticked-off consumer can throw a viral YouTube video at a big corporation. No, not everyone can necessarily afford a top PR firm, just like not everyone can afford top lawyers, accountants or private security. What can I say? It happens.

I like PRSA’s response to the article as well, though I’m not sure I agree with their claim that The Economist is insulting women:

http://prsay.prsa.org/index.php/2010/12/20/rise-of-the-image-men-rebuttal/

What do you think? Comment or Tweet me: @mattculbertson

By the way, you may enjoy this Mac vs. PC style video of journalism vs. PR.

Editor’s note: Matt Culbertson is an intern at Olson Communications. This entry is his swan song on our blog. His perspective will be missed as he goes from this place! A big, heartfelt thanks to Matt for his contributions to our agency.

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