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PR Pros Gone Wild!: When “Public Relations” becomes “Personal Relations”

June 16th, 2006

Full Frontal PR Report
Kevin Hughes

In my years as an up-and-coming PR professional, I’ve encountered numerous “sticky” situations. As PR pros, we deal with extremely diverse people in many unique situations, and that means a lot of groups: We deal with clients. We deal with media. We even deal with other PR folks. Sometimes the boundaries of PR blur into…Personal Relations.

Picture this: A young woman just starting her PR career is facilitating a story with a major national publication. The reporter is a young man a little older than she is but still young enough that he falls into the same age bracket. They have several meetings that turn quickly from coffee outings to dinner dates. One thing leads to another, and they end up back at his apartment for a really juicy story that might end up on Page Six.

Did either of them cross the line from ethical and professional to immoral and amateur? Did she go home with him to ensure a placement for her client? Did he take her home in exchange for giving her terrific material? Or did they both just fall for each other’s charms?

Who knows…

Each situation is unique and worth pondering. The fact is that PR people are the most social professionals in the communications industry—possibly the world. A first-rate PR guy or gal is the name, face and smile everyone remembers. They make it their business to know just about every person they can. Someone once told me that the best client a PR person can represent is themselves.

This behavior is at full force when meeting with a journalist or prospective client. A good PR person will always put his best face forward, and it is only natural that we turn it on for our customers. We are sales people, right, and sometimes we will say or do whatever it, uh, takes to get what we want accomplished.

I once fell into a romantic situation with a journalist. We had worked on several stories together and he was quite taken with me. (Ah, but of course.) We were always out discussing story ideas, work-related issues, or just hanging out for fun. Something began to develop between us—chemically—and both of us started to worry. Worried if we took it too far we would be compromising our true professional ethics.

He started to get some “flack” from his editor for always running stories about my clients, and I began getting pressured by my colleagues to push other clients on him. I mean, they knew I had a special relationship with this journalist and publication. Finally, enough was enough and we decided it would be best to not see each other romantically. To this day we are still friends and colleagues but do I see him as much anymore? Not really. Has he continued to write stories for me? When the angle is right.

What about clients or colleagues in the field? Journalists are the easiest to fall into a hot tub with, but the people you work with might be just as dangerous to get flirty with in a professional setting.

I was working one summer with a client sponsoring a special event for a non-profit. The PR director for the non-profit group took special interest and asked me out for dinner. I got a lot of teasing comments from co-workers since he was pretty obviously old enough to be my father; yet he was nice and a total gentleman. In the end, he just wanted to have dinner!

Whether he wanted something more, I don’t know. Unlike a colleague that went for drinks with a client and ended up back at his place for more than a nightcap, this dinner was left innocent.

That kind of situation can go south because from what I hear—and I hear a lot—the client was not comfortable working with his new buddy again. I remember once I got asked out by a client for champagne following an event. I made sure to bring someone from the office with me as a precaution (safety in numbers) and realized my client couldn’t have been happier to have us both there. Nothing untoward happened, since I knew better than to blur those lines and risk losing my job.

Is it worth it to blur those lines of Public Relations and “Personal Relations”?

If you might be putting you or the company’s reputation in jeopardy, then no. If you think you might be gaining something by crossing that line and you know in your gut it’s not right, don’t cross over.

Whether you’re sticking to the boardroom, the bedroom, or both, a smart communications professional knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Never compromise your ethics, most especially in matters of the heart. You might just get burned…or you might get a really streaky suntan!

Kevin Hughes is an Account Executive at RLM, where his clients respect his ethics, his results, and his nature.