Removed from reality: Quo vadis, Catholic Church?

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"We`re not intimidated by petty gossip."
Pope Benedikt, Palm Sunday 2010.

The Catholic Church is currently facing one of the most threatening crises of its history, with thousands of priests being accused of molesting children and the Vatican apparently being responsible for a huge cover up.

I don`t really want to talk about the issue itself here, since this can easily become unruly, but I cannot help but wonder why the church seems so unaware of what damage this does to its public reputation.

If you argue from a crisis management point, the church just makes it worse and worse everyday. They are clearly still trying to cover up the ugly truth instead of being honest or transparent and they have no control over their members whatsoever: priests and bishops in different countries talk to the media, apparently unconstrained by directives. Some are still denying the facts, others are justifying themselves, but the whole church just seems to get more and more caught in its own net.

Now the Vatican thought it would be a good idea to go into the defensive and attack the media. A Vatican newspaper editorial said the claims about Joseph Ratzinger playing a big part in the cover up were an "ignoble" attack on the Pope and that there was no "cover-up".

In Germany, still a predominantly catholic country, Bishop Müller accused the national media of campaigning against the church and compared the situation to the Third Reich, where journalists were also trying to "villainize" the church and to attack its credibility. Of course he was just trying to distract from the facts, "shoot the messenger" - what resulted in heavily offending the German journalists` union.

So how can such a global institution be so blind to the damage of it`s worldwide image?
The allegations have reached a level where there`s no longer a point in denying them. In my opinion, the only exit strategy the church has right now is to fully admit its guilt, to be open and honest about what has been happening in the past and what is still happening all over the world. They have to support criminal prosecution against priests instead of rambling on about "half-century old cases" and statutes of limitation.

The church clearly thinks it can save the institution itself by sacrificing a few black sheep and ride out the whole issue. Sure, they`ve been through worse.

Maybe the church thinks in centuries rather than decades. They still believe that things like that will eventually go away if you just remain silent long enough. But it doesn`t work like that anymore: the media, as well as the recipients have changed. And by not admitting their guilt, they are pushing away a whole generation of believers.

The Catholic Church is in desperate need of change: Change of attitudes, change of behaviour, change of reputation. Otherwise it will fully ruin its reputation and sooner or later, as generations change, lose its followers and therefore its right to exist.

For further information, watch this interview with BBC Vatican correspondent David Willey on failed PR.

Is lobbying destroying our faith in politics?

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The scandal on British MPs` expenses is still fresh but the next one is already `round the corner.

Today the Sunday Times featured the Channel 4 TV programme "Dispatches" that reveals the unregulated world of political lobbying. By pretending to be a fictional US public affairs company, journalists arranged meetings with several senior politicians and asked them if they were interested in a position on the advisory board of their (fictional) London office in order to get priviledged access to Downing Street No 10. Most of them agreed to help win government contracts, provide confidential information and lobby the right people, some even bragged about what they have already achieved for private c
orporate interests while still serving as MPs.

Well, these interviews were filmed by a hidden camera - gotcha.

Stephen Byers, former transport minister and known as close to Tony Blair, even referred to himself as a "cab to hire". A nice referrence to Mohamad al-Fayed who famously said 16 years ago: "You can hire an MP the way you hire a London taxi". So it seems like not much has changed. In the video, Byers boasts he had saved "hundreds of millions of pounds for National Express" and had "delayed and amended food labelling proposals for Tesco". He also mentions his close ties to former PM Tony Blair, saying: "If there`s an event, we could have a word with Tony, say come along for a drink."
And now we know exactly what buying an MP costs: Patricia Hewitt, former health secretary mentioned the sum of 3000 GBP a day, Byers said 3000 - 5000 GBP.

The revelations have transferred the pressure over Westminster sleaze that was previously focused on Lord Ashcroft on the Tories onto the Labour goverment. Of course David Cameron immediately took the chance to air himself, acting shocked and demanding a closer investigation. And being 6 weeks away from the elections, this might just tip the scales for Tory. But does it really matter?

This scandal once more reveals the corruptly politics really are - it is just another evidence for what most voters already know. No wonder a whole generation lost its faith in national politics whatsoever. All this isn`t harming Labour, Tories or Liberals in particular but politics in general: it`s only reinforcing the voters` disenchantment with politics. Even worse: the only parties benefiting from this could be radical ones.

And as always, transparency and honesty are not even considered for resolving the issue. Gordon Brown and the Labour government pretend to be shocked and the MPs caught on tape, as well as the companies they`ve been lobbying for say the allegations were exaggerated.

And in the middle of this, of course, stands PR. Lobbying, public affairs, political PR - the dark side of the industry, undermining the public trust in politics. Some would even call it the single biggest threat to our democratic health. What no one seems to get is that scandals like this hurt the reputation of public relations as a profession just as much as they hurt our trust in politicians. And once the trust is gone, it`s the hardest thing to be regained.


Another epic PR fail: When Nestle met Greenpeace.

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It all started with this video. WARNING: It`s hardcore.

Have a break? from Greenpeace UK.

The story behind this video addresses a couple of issues in PR: the power of NGOs, why they always seem to be one step ahead, why corporations are still so vulnerable when it comes to their reputation, why you can`t live without a descent social media strategy these days and last but not least, why having a facebook fanpage and a twitter profile doesn`t mean you control social media.

When a powerful NGO like Greenpeace starts a worldwide campaign against a corporation like Nestle, it is hard for them to react adequately. Greenpeace wants Nestle to remove palm oil from their products, because its production destroys the rain forrest. They launched the video above, a parody on a kitkat commercial and basically accuses Nestle of killing orangutans by destroying their natural living environment.
Nestle was not amused. But what is the right way to react in a situation like this? Well, we certainly know what the wrong way looks like: Nestle lobbied to have the video removed from Youtube, citing a copyright complaint. That was clearly a bad decision: first, because the video was bound to appear on several other video platforms and second, because it drew even more attention to it. Now that it`s banned, we have to see it, right? Nestle itself gave the video its news worthiness. A text book example for a phenomenon called the Streisand effect.
"Thank you Nestle...I would never have seen this video if you hadn`t had it kicked off YouTube. Now I`m forwarding it all my friends, through Facebook, and guess what they are forwarding it all their mates. Fire your PR team. They are muppets."

We`ve seen this scenario before: While NGOs know exactly what the web2.0 is capable of, partly because they`ve participated in it and needed it from the very beginning, big corporations like Nestle are still wary of it. They use it because they have to, so they employed some people to run a facebook fanpage, a twitter account and maybe a corporate blog. But when it comes to a crisis, they immediatly fall back into old habbits, in this case pulling some strings, make some legal threats, publishing a press release with empty phrases about CSR and hoping that everything will calm down eventually. They just don`t get that the world of PR has fundamentaly changed and that these tools don`t work anymore.

As the video went viral, Nestle made another mistake. Instead of using their existing accounts on social media plattforms to jump into the conversation and calm the waves a bit, they decided to stay away from it. Nestle decided not to address the issue on their twitter feed, except for one single link to their corporate press release, whereas Greenpeace makes it more than easy for supporters to participate in the campaign through social media. Even worse: Nestle is following only 8 people on twitter: what kind of dialogue is that?

Nestle tried to do the same with facebook, but Greenpeace wouldn`t let them. Supporters started posting to the Nestle and the kitkat fanpage en masse, encouraged by Greenpeace. Many changed their profile pictures to Anti-Nestle slogans. Once more, Nestle completely missed the chance to produce any kind of dialogue around the issue, but instead decided it would be a good idea to threaten the facebook users and snap back at fans. When a user posted the following (very true) comment:
"not sure you`re going to win friends in the social media space with this sort of dogmatic approach. I understand that you`re on your back-foot due to various issues not excluding palm oil but social media is about embracing your market, engaging and having a conversation rather than preaching!"
Whoever is responsible for the Nestle facebook account decided to respond this:
"Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it`s our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus."
Nestle completely lost control over its own facebook page - which shows the ugly side of social media. An open forum for comments and feedback can turn against you, when badly managed. The way Nestle snapped back at users is just ridiculous. The whole social media strategy seems completely uncoordinated and unorganized.

But I don`t see that as a threat to social media marketing in general, as some bloggers already predict. Corporations should be alarmed and learn from what`s happening to Nestle. Don`t take social media for granted and try to dig a little deeper before using it. True engagement in social media first requires you to understand the sociological and cultural implications that social media is funded on. Like every PR tool, it needs to be used strategically and consciously.

International political PR: The EU´s communication deficit.

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Political PR makes the world go round. While national goverments, especially in Europe, rely heavily on spin doctors to influence the public opinion, it is more than surprising how under-developed the European Union`s communication strategy is.
As decisions are more and more made on a European rather than on a national level, EU citizens started to feel left out of the decision making process and turned away from the EU. The consequence are low voter turnouts in the European elections and decreasing acceptance rates. The EU treaty, an important and necessary step towards a European future, eventually failed because of a lack of public support.

The European Commission (which has the biggest influence on the communication policy of the EU and administers the biggest budget) has been through more than one communication disaster during the last decade, and as a result of that, its public reputation is constantly decreasing. Still they don`t seem to learn anything out of it.

During the 1990s, European citizens started to develope a growing EU-scepticism, which the lacking communication and information policy of the EU was held responsible for. It was deeply determined by a lack of transparency and the constant cover-up of corruption.
In 1999 this culminated in the resignation of the Santer Comission because of the corruption scandal that evolved around Edith Cresson.

Therefore, the following commission devoted itself to the development of a more intensive and more strategical communication program, based on the models of transparency and dialogue. Since then, day-to-day communication has definitely improved: daily press conferences and press releases are available online and easily accessible for journalists and citizens. However, there`s still hardly any coordination or collaboration between the communication departments of the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. They work widely autonomous, which is the main reason why a lot of information is published several times or even contradictory.

This is due to the fact that the communication activities of the EU still have no legal basis. There is no official allocation of competence for information policy (meaning active Public Relations). How can an organization as big as the EU, facing the challenge of communicating to almost 500 million people, have no integrative communication strategy, not even an overall communication department?

The communication of the EU shows an even bigger deficit when it comes to the planning and realisation of campaigns. Up to now campaigns (such as the campaign for the introduction of the Euro) have been of astoundingly bad quality and showed only little effect on the European citizens. Only political or intellectual elites have been addressed or the subject has been communicated in a wrong way. That makes it particularly easy for EU opponents to launch anti campaigns and reach a bigger audience than the actual campaign. After the referendums on the EU treaty in France, 60% of the French citizens said they voted against it, since the treaty was too complicated to understand and too difficult to read. No one bothered to provide the citizens with decent information material.
This could be due to the fact that only few communication experts work for the commission, but rather political scientists. The EU has to begin to value PR, build a decent communication department and spend more money on its campaigns in order to ensure a higher quality and coverage. If the EU is not able to plan good campaigns on its own, it has to consider employing external PR agencies. Bad, half-heartedly realised campaigns only make the European citizens think even more negative of the EU.

The EU`s biggest problem is that there is still no European public sphere, mainly because of the lack of communication. Issues and problems are mostly handled at a national level but never at a European one. It should be the higher purpose of the EU communication policy to change this. Without a united European public, the EU cannot succeed.

Glamourous PR girls? Why your TV is lying to you.

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The perception of women in PR is highly influenced by fictional movies and tv shows - and it´s not always the best one.

Many people don`t exactly know what PR is all about and what a PR pro really does. So TV actually plays a big part in constructing the public image of PR.

Movies like Wag the Dog or Thank you for Smoking show PR as ruthless, unethical spin. But there may be an even bigger threat to the profession: the countless fictional and reality TV shows featuring the fabulous lifes of "PR girls". When female PR practitioners are portrayed as fluffy party girls, young, pretty and from head to toe dressed in designer clothes, this might have a negative impact on both the state of professionalism in PR and the ongoing fight of women trying to shatter the glass ceiling.

PR is a field widely dominated by women. And in fact, whenever a PR practitioner is shown on TV, it`s a woman. Samantha Jones in Sex & the City, Eddie and Patsie in Absolutely Fabulous, Shauna in Entourage: they all have one thing in common - they work in the celebrity, fashion and lifestyle sector and they are living every girl´s dream. What they display is a rather superficial view of public relations: PR is more fun than actual work, more of a lifestyle choice than a career. And as a pleasant side effect, they all seem to earn tons of money. They are dressed in Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, drive fancy cars and their main job seems to be drinking champagne at parties.

All those popular shows may be one of the reasons why so many young girls decide to pursue a career in PR. Well, reality will teach them a lesson soon enough. Working in PR isn`t more glamourous than any other job. Especially Fashion PR requires more than a "Passion for Fashion" - it is hard work and most of the time, you`ll be to tired to go to those fabulous parties that you see on TV.

But yes, there may be hope. While the MTV "Power Girls", a reality show about Lizzie Grubman`s New York PR firm, seem like Samantha Jones` little sisters, all giggly and glamourous, the new show featuring life in a PR agency takes a slightly different approach: Bravo`s "Kell on Earth" is the first show to focus on the hard work that stands behind a glamourous appearance. Fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone often looks like she hasn`t slept in 5 years and so do most of her employees: fashion PR is dominated by long working hours, very unglamourous duties and unpleasant budget cuts. Maybe that show will be eye-opening for some girls...

All in all, PR should start to work on its own reputation. TV is reinforcing the image of PR as being fluffy and somewhat unnecessary. As long as popular culture portrays women in PR as fluffy party girls, they won`t be associated with strong management skills and therefore won`t be able to reach the top of the profession. PR in general suffers from this reputation and has troubles with being taken seriously within organizational culture.

Women in PR: Will we ever shatter the glass ceiling?

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"A woman`s place is no longer in the home. It seems to be in the communication department."
Wilma Matthews, 1986

Back in the 1960s, women formed only 10 per cent of the American PR field. Only 20 years later, in the mid-80s, this percentage had increased to 50 per cent. This phenomenon, called the “Gender Switch”, initialized the quantitative feminization of public relations.
At the end of the 1990s, according to the US Department of Labor, two thirds of PR specialists were women.

At the same time, research has repeatedly shown that a strong vertical segmentation has taken place: men are more often working in the higher paid manager role, women work as PR technicians and therefore earn less money . Gender predicts income. Cline et al. (1986) proved that women are earning at least 18,5 per cent less then men in PR – only determined by the variable sex.

It is a fact that women are pushed aside by men while climbing the job ladder. In education, women dominate the field by far: an estimated 80 per cent of public relations majors are female. But as age and years of work experience increase, the percentage of women decreases. The main reason for this diminution is probably the problematic connection of family and job. Similar to many other professions, women have problems with coming back to a job after having a baby and experience not being as “valued” anymore, especially when working set hours. Many organizations still refuse to provide proper child care benefits or family leave policies.

Another argument is that men are taught from a young age to feel a sense of entitlement for moving up in an organization`s hierarchy, whereas women feel a lot more uncomfortable asking for promotions. Men come into entry-level positions already socialized to act like managers, and therefore, will be promoted faster than women. Even more, many organizations are still ruled by sex discriminations and sexism. Respondents of the surveys conducted by Grunig et al. (2001) and Aldoory&Toth (2002) talk about “good ol `boys networks” in organizations, where men in senior management support and promote younger men, but women are strategically excluded and run over. “It shuts them out at the management table as well as on the basketball court or on the golf course” (Grunig et al., 2001).

This has also an impact on networking amongst women. Many of them feel that the opportunities are so limited that they are forced to promote themselves at the expense of other women, a phenomenon often referred to as “catfighting” or the “queen bee syndrom”.

Another factor women are suffering from are gender stereotypes. Women are perceived of lacking managerial skills and not being able to lead. Again, this is just a consequence of gender-specific socialization processes that seem to make women more suitable for certain tasks (like communication) than others (like management), which is why a lot more women can be found working as a PR technician than a PR manager.

To overcome discrimination on an organizational/social level, general awareness of sexism in society must be raised and gender strereotypes have to be broken down. Organizations need to keep on establishing more family-friendly policies. Even more importantly, the masculine ethic in organizations has to be rethought. Family-friendly policies are of limited benefit until the value system that predominates in most organizations changes.

First, the next generation of public relations scholars has a special obligation to carry on gender research in the tradition of those who have paved the way, to help make a profession that has promised women opportunity one that delivers on that promise. Future research should particularly focus on structural criteria of the specific labour market, as well as aspects of organizational cultures.
And most importantly: Be aware of discrimination and gender inequities. The sooner you get prepared for it, the more you can change these conditions. We`re in charge of our own future and cannot wait for the world to change - better change it yourself. Be aware of things like networking among men and try to break into it.

Previous studies have shown that there is still a high level of denial when it comes to gender inequities. Both men and women tend to deny that discrimination is as pronounced as the research indicates, even when faced with the hard facts. So women, should be aware of this subject and start to deal with it as early as possible, in order to succeed.


Aldoory, L. & Toth, E. L. (2002). Gender discrepancies in a gendered profession: A developing theory for public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 14(2), 103-126.

Cline, C. G. & Toth, E. L., Turk, J. V., Walters, L. M., Johnson, N. & Smith, H. (1986). The velvet ghetto: The impact of the increasing percentage of women in public relations and business communication. Summary Report. San Francisco: IABC Foundation.

Dozier, D. M. (1988). Breaking public relations´ glass ceiling. Public Relations Review, 14(3), 6-14.

Grunig, L. A., Toth, E. L. & Hon, L. C. (2001). Women in public relations. How gender influences practice. New York: Guilford Press.

PR: Ethics for the sake of professionalism?

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Ethics in Public Relations have emerged to one of the key topics in PR theory and research over the last decades. This is on the other hand due to the growing professionalization and institutionalization of PR, on the other hand stories of PR practitioners violating existing moral conceptions by deliberately lying to the public have been all over the media and confirmed the bad public reputation of PR as a manipulating, untrustworthy industry. Many sources even refer to the term "public relations ethics" as an oxymoron (Parson, 2004; Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995), meaning that it cannot exist because of the nature of PR as a deliberately manipulating practice. Hence setting up certain ethical rules and codes of conduct should improve this public image and provide guidelines to practitioners. But how effective are they?

Of course public relation practitioners face certain difficulties when it comes to ethics. PR is supposed to establish public trust, but nevertheless it is paid, order-bound communication. Professional organizations responded to this ethical dilemma by developing certain codes of conduct that should apply not only to their members but to every PR professional.

Those codes are supposed to provide guidance in ethical questions to individuals, but their main purpose probably is to strengthen the perception of PR as a profession. Resolving ethical questions and providing clear standards on what is right and what is wrong is crucial to a profession. Since other typical characteristics of a profession like prescribed standards of education will never apply to public relations (because of the freedom of speech), PR justifies itself through a social component of professionalism, which is serving the public interest. “Every profession has a moral purpose. Medicine has health. Law has justice. Public relations has harmony – social harmony” (Seib&Fitzpatrick, 1995). In order to secure the public interest, restrictions on behavior come into consideration. Thus if we accept this obligation to act in the public interest, we voluntarily restrict professional actions by that obligation.

If founding professional organizations such as the PRSA was the first step towards professionalism in PR, setting up ethical codes of conduct was a logical second one. Today nearly every national public relations organization has its own set of ethical codes. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions lists more than 850 different codes of ethics on its website (Read more about the Code of Athens, Code of Lisbon, PRSA Member Code of Ethics). Most of them are quite similar to each other and cover the moral principles of honesty, integrity and fairness. Some are very clear about the ethical do`s and don`ts, some are more vague and provide more of a general guideline to ethical behaviour and human rights.

Not to give out expensive gifts to journalists, not to lie to or to mislead the public, to avoid conflicts and to strengthen the public’s trust in ones profession – all of those principles make perfectly sense. But even if you cannot criticise the codes internally anymore, there are still some major problems left: First, they have “no teeth” and second, only a minority of practitioners actually know about them. The enforcement of a code is of course limited by the organization’s authority, because codes are only enforceable to an organization’s members. Only ten percent of active PR professionals in the USA are members of the PRSA.

And even for members of the organization, the punishment for violating the code of conduct is relatively harmless. It ranges from admonishment to expulsion from the organization. That is a far cry from the punitive power wielded by organizations in professions in which practitioners are licensed. Lawyers and physicians can ultimately be banned from their occupation when violating canons of professional ethics, but a public relations practitioner is “protected” by the freedom of speech.

So maybe those codes are nothing more than an attempt to professionalize public relations and improve its public reputation. Do professional codes not only state the obvious? Parsons (2004) says: “The primary argument against the requirement for professional codes of ethics is the belief that there need not be any special code of ethics apart from the moral guidelines within a given society”. It is true, that common sense and a basic understanding of morals and ethics would make a professional code unnecessary in large part, since those codes refer mainly to personal ethics. But so does the law – and still we need it. Unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world where everybody lives up to moral ideals. A code of conduct’s right to exist lies in providing guidance when a practitioner sees his personal ethics challenged. However, those codes are limited by the individual. An unethical practitioner will not be bothered by a professional organizations` code of conduct.

In my opinion, ethics are key. Creating an atmosphere of social responsibility and moral values has become a key requirement to modern organizations and this will eventually have an impact on the profession of public relations itself. By helping to raise the ethical standards of the organizations they represent, public relations professionals will enhance their own reputation.

Watch the trailer of Thank you for Smoking, a very entertaining and eye opening movie about the industry of spin and ethics in PR:


Bentele, G. & Seidenglanz, R. (2008): How ethical do PR practitioners think? Evaluation of ethical values and attitudes of the professional field in Germany. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Seib, P. & Fitzpatrick, K. (1995): Public Relations Ethics. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Parsons, P. (2004): Ethics in public relations: a guide to best practice. London: Kogan Page Limited.