The following article was originally posted in Tom Watson’s blog, FiftyOneZeroOne.
I’ve been following the various debates on blogs (PR Moment, Wadds, etc) and in PR Week (May 17) about the reputation of public relations. 

TWatsonMuch of the discussion has been about the virtues of PR and how these can be expressed, rather than showing understanding of “reputation”. For at least 20 years, some PR operations have portrayed themselves as “reputation managers” which has also demonstrated little understanding of reputation.

There is a lot of research and literature on this topic. Much of it is worth reading and comes from outside PR and organisational/corporate communications, as many sectors and disciplines consider that reputation relates to them or their responsibilities.

For example, a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review specifically argued that one person in each organisation should be in charge of reputation and it should not be “people holding top ‘spin’ jobs such as heads of marketing and corporate communications” (Eccles, Newquist & Schatz, 2007, p.114). These authors also excluded corporate lawyers but proposed COO, CFO, heads of risk management, strategic planning and internal audit as suitable because “they have the credibility and resources necessary to do the job” (p.114). Marketers and communicators were unsuitable because they hold responsibilities which have potential conflicts of interest.

Moving on to reputation itself, US management academic Paul Argenti and Bob Druckenmiller (of Porter Novelli) defined it as: “the collective representation of multiple constituencies’ images of a company built up over time and based on a company’s identity programs, its performance and how constituencies have perceived its behaviour” (2004, p.369). 

With a bit of decoding, they are making the case that reputation is given by stakeholders (“constituencies”) to an organisation, sector or profession by stakeholders because of its behaviour over time. It’s not created by a promotional campaign, such as “a traditional PR campaign” or “doing better PR for PR”, as proposed in the PR Week commentaries.

After reviewing all the recent comments, I’d support Lord Bell’s assertion in PR Week that “the reputation of the PR industry should be based on what it does well or badly” and his focus on “the strategic importance of the business” (PR Week, May 17, p.25)

PR will build its own reputation over time through excellent strategic work undertaken by well educated, creative practitioners, operating in an ethical environment, who create value for their clients or employers. If PR continues to play in the publicity field with loose ethics, then it will get the reputation it deserves.

Argenti, P.A. and Druckenmiller, B., 2004. Reputation and the corporate brand. Corporate Reputation Review, 7(4), 368-374.
Eccles, R.G., Newquist, S.C. & Schatz, R. (2007). A framework for measuring reputational risk. Harvard Business Review, February 2007, 104-114.

Tom Watson is Professor of Public Relations, Bournemouth University.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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3 thoughts on “Reputation and PR

  1. Thank you Tom.
    Of course, reputation development goes well beyond concepts of Stakeholders and Publics (an area for academic debate at some time). I do like constituents to describe those who have influence and effect.
    As for PR’s role in business reputation (and business is only a small part of PR practice), I am sure that this will change very substantially over the next few years.
    Business in the Cloud is a very different beast. Today’s Economist gives a hint of the future The whole idea of the Cloud has massive implications 9this is a heart warming story in Nature Just how far this will go is conjecture but with transparency on this scale Reputation is well beyond the competencies of COO, CFO, heads of risk management, .
    Can we create such competency.
    Would you believe a PR man?

  2. “Interesting, and opens a great discussion. FYI, here’s my white paper on who owns reputation: The risk management world is increasingly focused on this debate – and they largely don’t see PR as having a strategic role. It isn’t just a matter of PR’s own reputation as having, well, ethical malleability. PR practitioners will need to actively embrace a strategic business focus plus bridge (and understand) GRC (governance, risk management, compliance) and financial risk issues within the firm if they are to be entrusted with responsibility for reputational risk.”

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