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6 A.M.

PR, Not Communications

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During a town-hall styled meeting at Edelman’s London office yesterday, one of my colleagues asked the question…. as PR continues to expand, encompassing digital, research, media planning and content creation, should we consider rebranding ourselves as communications firms?

I believe this is the wrong way to go for the following reasons:

  1. When you have a clearly defined profession–underpinned by core values and ethics –it is easier to update our brand than introduce a new one.
  2. The brand of PR is not damaged as much as it is underrated. The general public puts PR into the box of master manipulators (“spinners”) or publicists. This we can change.

  3. The world is moving in our direction. The stakeholder society—where corporations/organizations act in the long-term interests of all stakeholders as well as shareholders and customers– is perfectly constituted to our profession. We engage all stakeholders in continuous conversations through multiple channels while reiterating clients’ commitment to performance with purpose.
  4. We bring a deep understanding of the social aspect of media. It is conversation–direct genuine interaction– with corporations that people want, not one-way selling.
  5. We are strategic advisors. An effective PR program is entirely premised on corporations/organizations actions, doing the right thing, and then telling the story well. We are at the c-suite table informing corporate and brand strategy to help make decisions.
  6. Part of our value-add is the network of influencers we maintain. We bring input from NGOs, community leaders, media, academic experts, as well as employees, customers etc. to inform clients.
  7. We build credible brands and reputations because media is the world’s most important amplifier of quality information. We’re not journalists. But, as we support ‘owned’ channels, helping clients think and act like media companies, PR’s responsibility is to ensure we adhere to the journalist-quality standards for posting and distributing information.

The advertising, digital, research, media, and public relations disciplines are all converging, as the walls between the four parts of the ‘Media Cloverleaf’ (Mainstream, Tra-digital, Social, Owned) come down. We will do better by reiterating PR’s points of difference rather than trying to redefine our profession. The advertising folks bring paid media and planning, the digital players have elegant technical solutions, the research firms have insight, the media buyers have purchasing clout, and PR brings content and stakeholder engagement. We are adding these capabilities to our toolbox to provide comprehensive solutions for our clients—expanding PR to public engagement–while continuing to use our public relations lens as the basis of competitive advantage.

As always, I appreciate your comments.

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  • Michael Molligan

    I tend to agree with those who characterize your overall position as extremely idealistic. Looking at the massive failures of the last decade, it’s hard to see the world moving in the direction of organizations acting in the best interests of all its stakeholders and customers. The first half of your second point is well stated. PR is severely misunderstood. But simply saying “This we can change” doesn’t make it so. How many decades has this misperception lasted, despite all the incredibly talented people who work in this field? I believe Stephanie’s definition of PR is right on point, but I don’t agree with her conclusion that communications is simply a part of PR. It is the integral part of PR, as it is the integral part of advertising and marketing. You can’t maintain relationships if you can’t communicate effectively. Communications encompasses all, and we should give consideration to moving firmly in that direction, rather than continuing to put energies toward overcoming the negative connotations of the title of what I believe to be, when practiced truly, a noble profession.

  • Richard,

    A fascinating question indeed. I think I’m in sync with your instinct for keeping distinct the boundaries between communications and PR.

    But I do struggle with your third point: the idea that the world is moving ‘in our direction,’ because of the spread toward broader stakeholder involvement, “where corporations/organizations act in the long-term interests of all stakeholders as well as shareholders and customers.”

    You say, and let me choose your words to highlight them: this is because “We engage all stakeholders in continuous conversations through multiple channels while reiterating clients’ commitment…”

    I find this a massive cognitive disconnect. Unless you make the heaven-is-here-now-on-earth assumption that corporate clients’ actions are ALREADY aimed at the long term interests of all stakeholders, then to act as the partisan, push-based, promotional voice of one stakeholder to the others accomplishes exactly the opposite.

    We are far, far from a business society in which “corporations and organizations act in the long-term interests of all stake-holders.” We’re so far from it, that that is the reason we’re having something of a revolt to move in that direction.

    When a conservative business publication like Forbes headlines and praises a NYTimes story about the systemic failure of our society to prosecute anyone for causing a global financial crisis, I’d say that’s a good indicator that we’ve got a REAL PROBLEM.

    In the face of such an issue, to suggest that the PR industry is “perfectly constituted” to serve a stakeholder society is like saying the credit card industry is perfectly constituted to serve the financial needs of an American population that is healthy, wealthy and has achieved the American dream–where all the children are above average. It’s a dream, all right, but a pipe dream, a wet dream, a Hollywood movie dream.

    Right now, the PR industry–just like the credit card industry–is perfectly constituted to do exactly the opposite; to further the needs of the shareholder-value-dominated conception of business, which has evolved over the last several decades.

    I don’t see the ‘stakeholder revolution’ taking effect anything like soon; and I don’t see the PR industry’s playing a forward-moving role in that evolution given the role of broadcaster for the single-stakeholder model that exists now.

    Today’s corporate client is overwhelmingly serving the shareholder constituency–not multiple stakeholders. If and when corporate clients switch and serve all stakeholders, your statement will be true. But from hypothetical ‘if’ clauses, any conclusion follows. Meanwhile–it is not the case.

    If anything, the PR industry is perfectly constituted to serve as just the opposite: a regressive force, holding back the movement toward a stakeholder society.

    The all-stakeholder-serving view is fine–in a Utopia. But what is PR doing to move business toward that Utopia? What is its business model on the way there? Declaring victory doesn’t make it so.

    This is a problem I think PR has, which perhaps communications does not.

  • Jo Chao

    This is a very interesting post. It’s sad that PR does not have a very specific definition; however, it provides an opportunity for all PR people to consider where should PR anchor its position. As for me, PR is not just communication; communication is one of PR’s function. PR is about delivering the right message to the right ones (influencer if you want to be fancy) to construct “relations”. “Relation” should be PR’s core value, which differentiates PR with other disciplines.

  • Amina Kardasevic

    Digital, research, media planning and content creation are all aspects of communication but they are a part of PR as well. Public relations wouldn’t exist without communication and it makes no sense to rebrand a whole subject into something else. I agree that creating a new brand and getting people on board is much harder than it sounds. PR is able to hone into people skills and bring genuine interaction, do the right thing, and make the best decision for companies and entrepreneurs. It’s true that part of a PR professional’s job is to network and be able to maintain relationships for clients. Plain communications wouldn’t be able to build reputations and credible brands through interactions with the media. A client should be able to trust their PR person to bring them well-rounded information from all sides and help them think like a media company. Public relations are still an important, reliable brand and trying to change it would not be the best idea.

  • Satyen Dayal

    Great point Richard re: “PR’s responsibility is to ensure we adhere to the journalist-quality standards for posting and distributing information.” This is part of the reason why the idealist in me has always believed that PR stands for something more than communication.

  • Hi Richard,

    Interesting post covering something that I have been thinking about for a fair while. Whilst you may see yourselves as a public relations agency, I suspect that the external view is rather different. I think that the problem is more nuanced:

    – If you understand PR as public engagement then I would agree with you. In fact, I would go as far to as to say that organisations are moving from being ‘marketing orientated’ – focused on the consumer, to being ‘PR orientated’ – focused on relationships and those relationships driving success. I would further argue that ‘we are all PR people now’ (the we being the larger organisation). This does bring the question is PR now too important to be left to PR people, in the way that the same question was asked of marketers previously?

    Here is where the nuances come in:

    – There are many people both within and outside the industry that don’t define PR as public engagement but influencer engagement. I have heard marketers call PR free advertising and digital marketers call it press release distribution. Or worse still, PR is media relations or reputation, which is a codification in many cases for business publication media relations and fire-fighting. In the UK at least, I would argue that the ‘brand of PR is broken; partly because of this mis-definition, but also because of a lack of trust in society: government spin, corporate cover-ups, corruption. The institutions involved may have regained their reputations somewhat, but PR as a profession hasn’t

    – This is occurring in many countries that are less sophisticated than the US in terms of PR. Even in the UK, which is probably partly why people raised it

    So what does this all mean?

    When the UK government legislated around online media and social platforms for marketing purposes, the CIPR wasn’t consulted and in the end had to try and insert itself post-process. This is precisely because PR is seen to be defined by its channels rather than relationships or engagement.

    The brand of PR or public relations holds businesses back in terms of growth and scale.

    The way it was once put to me was like this: going and buying a campaign from an advertising agency is like going and buying a car from a BMW dealership. You will go to an impressive commercial space, be reassured by the clean room-esque environment of the service area and pay a large amount of money over for your car. Buying a campaign from a PR agency is closer to buying the same BMW in front of someone’s house as a private sale. You turn up, it doesn’t feel particularly reassuring and pay by banker’s draft at an appropriately discounted price. Your offices in Victoria are not indicative of the state of the PR industry in the UK. Most PR businesses are small operations with sub 1 million GBP turnovers.

    PR is often not seen by customers as a strategic spend. The budget is often assigned after media planning, purchase, creative, advertising etc, corporate communications and corporate/social responsibility (CSR) is often used as a sticking plaster when systemic change in product and process is what is really required.

    All of this has led to a bleed in talent in the PR industry (at least in the UK agency world). With many of the most talented social and digital people in the industry towards media planning, search marketing, word-of-mouth marketing and digital creative agencies. Whilst the PR industry does gain from the occasional influx of journalists, they won’t bring the necessary skill sets and expertise that the industry is losing to other sectors.

    Having spoken with friends who’ve made the move; I’ve come to the conclusion that all but the biggest agencies in the PR industry is losing an arms race in terms of:
    1) Investment in tools
    2) Ability to learn from other marketing disciplines
    3) Larger client budgets
    4) Salary inflation driven by other disciplines looking to expand into PR-related areas

  • Here’s the KISS answer to this question without all the branding jargon: PR is the profession of identifying, building and maintaining impactful relationships with an organization’s stakeholders. Plain and simple. And where does that leave communication? Well, it is the means to the end — meaning it is through communication (dialogue, feedback, etc.) that we identify our stakeholders (or their emerging/changing perspectives), build relationships with them, and managing those relationships over time to enable an organization to achieve sustainability in an ever-changing world. Communication? It is merely the vehicle, but PR is the strategy that drives that vehicle.

  • I completely agree with your main points. It’s an exciting time for the PR profession. Your comment about the brand of public relations (#2) in particular stood out to me. I believe we have a great opportunity to change the stereotype some have of the profession. As our industry continues to grow and evolve and converge, there becomes a greater need to position ourselves accurately. Just by changing the name to “communications” doesn’t cover it. So if there’s something we need to fix, what exactly is the problem? In my opinion, I believe the general public just doesn’t understand what PR is. Partly because there isn’t a tangible product that we provide and in other respects because the few bad seeds acting as PR professionals give our industry a bad rap. Take a look at the first sentence of the Wikipedia definition of public relations and you’ll see it mirrors your claim. I hate to say it, but even my peers in the industry have trouble explaining what it is we do. If we as an industry can at least better define the profession and make it easier for the general public to consume I feel we’d be in a better position. That’s just one tactic to overcome it all. Would you agree?

  • Hugh Campbell

    Regarding, “It is conversation–direct genuine interaction– with corporations that people want, not one-way selling.”

    “A system is not the sum of its parts, but rather, the product of the interaction of its parts.”

    — Russell Ackoff, Professor Emeritus, Wharton School

  • Taylor Moad

    When you first mentioned your colleague’s question, my thinking was much the same as his. The PR industry is rapidly expanding over these topics, and we are seeing much of the industry merge with other industries such as marketing and advertising, which all incorporate some forms of communications. It made sense to me to answer “yes” to his question. However, I agree with your response that a complete rebranding is not necessary.

    In response to your listed reasons, I agree that building a new brand takes a ton of time and hard work. Also, some people are resistant to change, so when it comes to a well-known brand trying to change, it may not go over too well. As PR practitioners, we should be able to work to change the public opinion so we aren’t looked at as manipulators. Although we may utilize some of the same channels as advertisers, researchers, media planners, and digital, our work serves a different purpose than theirs. In order to gain the attention we want, we rely on the media outlets – ones that do not have to use our story, but choose to because it is newsworthy and factual. This method enhances our credibility, which separates us from the other related industries.

    Great insight into the subject! I think it’s important to take advantage of new technologies and use what we already know to become the shoulders upon which the future of PR will stand.

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