Justine Sacco’s offensive Aids tweet: is the PR industry hiring the right people?

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Goodness knows what was going through the head of PR executive Justine Sacco when she tweeted the following:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!”

The furore that followed should have been foreseeable to a PR practitioner like Sacco. She was, after all, presumably employed because of her ability to relate to the public.

Unsurprisingly, she was fired.

Maybe Sacco was ordinarily brilliant at communications and this was a one-off misjudgement. I don’t know her and so can’t take a view of her abilities. But I do worry, more generally, about the whether the PR industry is hiring the right sort of people or, at least, whether it is nurturing them properly.

Sometimes, at a junior level, we hire people who are able to thrive – at least for a short period – in a corporate environment, but who fail to study the public and struggle to empathise with public opinion. In some organisations, they even get promoted because proper measurement is lacking, and so no one really knows how ineffective they are. Frequently, though, they end up leaving the industry because they have not developed their skills and start to suffer from the Peter Principle.

Obviously, employing underskilled people creates a cost for the industry.

So how do we overcome this problem? Well, we could do a lot worse than challenging new recruits to learn from the founding fathers of PR.

Ivy Lee had an effective gut instinct about how the public would react to what companies said. Edward Bernays had a more scientific, research led approach approach. The desires of these two great PR men to understand the public were a vital skill that made them valuable in the marketplace.

As Edward Bernays wrote:

The public relations counsel is first and foremost a student. His field of study is the public mind. His text books for this study are the facts of life; the articles printed in newspapers and magazines, the advertisements that are inserted in publications, the billboards that line the streets, the railroads and the highways, the speeches that are delivered in legislative chambers, the sermons issuing from pulpits, anecdotes related in smoking rooms, the gossip of Wall Street, the patter of the theatre and the conversation of the other men who, like them, are interpreters and must listen for the clear or obscure enunciations of the public.

Yet I meet public relations staff who never read any of the media outlets they’re pitching to and have little understanding of other stakeholders they’re trying to communicate with. Indeed, Bernays was scathing about the lack of professional standards in PR, saying in 1991 that:

Public relations today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner.

The antidote, surely, is an increased interest by employers in “continuing professional development”. As Stephen Waddington, next year’s President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations says:

During the recent CIPR election I proposed that all members should commit to continuing professional development. After all it’s a mandatory requirement for the professions such as accounting and legal that we aspire to sit alongside.

Friends in other professions sacrifice evenings and weekends to pass qualifications and maintain their annual Continuous Professional Development (CPD) record.

I quite agree.