Public relations practitioners have an uncanny habit of calling out on social media peers for their (presumed) mistakes. However, shaming others’ actions with the #prfail hashtag does more harm than good to the profession.
It is hard to miss the multitude of #prfail tweets for anyone following PR professionals on Twitter. The hasthag has been used for quite some time now by journalists to denounce less than professional behavior from PR professionals. It has also been used by PR professionals themselves who either denounce certain practices on their own initiative or amplify the complaints from journalists.
Typical digressions that draw the ire from journalists (this PR Daily article contains many more examples) are PR professionals pitching stories without having researched the beat of the journalist first, or asking to plug a product or service into an existing article, or being overly aggressive when their follow up (note to European readers: follow-up calls by phone are a big no no on the American media market). The tweets with the #prfail hashtag would actually make you believe that there are an infinite number of ways that PR professionals can fumble media pitching.
Frustrations of an unregulated PR industry
The PR professional works in an industry that is unregulated and also has a low barrier-to-entry. Anyone with a laptop and a cellphone can call themselves a communications consultant (and they do). PR accreditation is recommended and helpful, but it is not a panacea. This predicament leads to no small amount of frustration with the professionals who actually are knowledgeable and skilled. These PR professionals are very sensitive to malpractices and are often very much inclined to join the pack whenever a journalist cries wolf.
There are some issues with PR peers jumping the #prfail bandwagon however. First, there is the fact that there is often not enough context to really judge whether a communication professional made any mistake. If Potbelly was caught red handed collecting COVID-19 PPP loans that were meant for small businesses, is this then a failure from the communication function at Potbelly? Communications professionals are always the first to complain – rightly so – about not having enough of a say in the actual behavior of companies. Would it not make sense to assume that their peers who are serving the companies that see their reputation tarnished might actually have had the answers but were never given the opportunity to intervene?
Granted, when we are talking about journalists sharing how they are being pitched, there is much less room for interpretation. Some of the practices denounced are indeed clearly less than professional. Take the earlier example I gave of pitching journalists without even having researched what they cover for example.
Some other alleged transgressions are debatable however. Should you send a journalist a reminder when you have not heard back from a pitch? In my experience, you will often provide that journalist a welcome service with your follow-up email. Your earlier message might have gotten lost in their spam box, or they might have simply overlooked it. These so-called mistakes that are made find themselves on a continuum, and at the lowest end of that continuum it is not even clear whether we are talking about mistakes in the first place.
So some mistakes are not really mistakes, and some deserve less than a call-out because they are somewhere in the middle. Also, in some instances the company committed a faux pas while the communication function made no error. One can thus safely say that calling something out as a #prfails is not always warranted. One can also say that the call-outs are never effective. Which brings me to the last point.
No reputational gains from self-flagellation
Has any communication professional ever changed their way of doing things after being called out (even anonymously) on social media? Does the shaming benefit anyone, except maybe the professional who gets to find a short moment of emotional release? The reality is that the #prfail does not really bring any value and it is surely not to be considered a tool for auto-regulation.
There is no avalanche of #accountingfail or #legalfail messages on social media. But there are plenty that focus on the #prfail. PR people seem to be more willing and eager than other professionals to remind everyone all of the time of the mistakes made by their peers. In branding parlance, through the repeated use of the fused word pair “prfail”, PR people seem set on building and reinforcing an association between “PR” and “failing” in the memory structures that are associated with the PR brand. It is certain that in any marketing department, the person responsible for coming up with that idea would be fired on the spot. There are no gains to ever be expected from PR professionals beating the #prfail drum and any communications professionals who cannot resist the temptation will continue to cut the branch they sit on.
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