There’s been a lot of chatter recently about whether PR is dead or alive, a worthy investment or a waste of money. The conversation is usually sparked by a journalist describing in painful detail how much they despise working with PR folks followed by someone relevant in the public relations industry writing a rebuttal. I imagine that’s how it’s always been.
Most recently, Financial Times reporter Emma Jacobs wrote an article saying that not only is PR a bad investment, the people in the industry often do more harm than good. It wasn’t long before a flustered Richard Edelmen wrote a rebuttal explaining why everything she said was derived from a fundamental lack of understanding about public relations.
Last month, former Edelmen executive Robert Phillips penned “PR is dead, public leadership is the future” for PRWeek. It’s a great post and I encourage you to read it after this. He said that the public relations business model is “dominated on the consultancy side by bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise.” Couldn’t agree more, but I’m not sure what changing the name will do.
I’ve listed some of my thoughts on the general debate below. First of all, I don’t think it’s possible for public relations to die. As far as the name goes, I say…
Call it whatever you want
Call it public relations, public affairs, communications, customer relations, media relations or public leadership, as Mr. Phillips put it. All you’re doing is changing the name, not the meaning or the function. The meaning must be changed from within.
The best way to think of public relations is actually to reverse the name. Relations public. Relationship with the public!
Like I said in a post for PRWeek in July, “Any entity’s relationship with the public, be it an individual or a corporation, is involuntary. The relationship will exist regardless of whether it is acknowledged or managed.”
Public relations isn’t going anywhere. It can’t go anywhere. The relationships businesses have with the public are more important than ever. They’re also more transparent. It’s silly to think they don’t need to be managed, or that managing them can be avoided.
The problem isn’t the name, it’s the people. And because it’s the people, the…
Criticism should be encouraged
If you’re in the public relations industry and you’re confident in your work, embrace and encourage the criticism. In order for the industry to progress and earn respect, the barrier to entry must be higher. Cut the dead weight. Pull the weeds. If PR is synonymous with incompetence and deceitfulness, it’s because the gatekeepers have allowed those types of people entry.
It’s up to those in the industry to define what public relations means. If you have an employee with the writing skills of an eighth grader who thinks their long list of media contacts will be relevant in the next five to ten years, fire them. If you’re not in a leadership role and your daily routine consists of organizing hundreds of reporters in Excel spreadsheets just in time to email blast generic pitches to ALL of them, quit and look for a new firm. You’re wasting your time. And worse, you’re wasting other people’s time. By becoming part of the problem instead of part of the solution, you’re helping stall the evolution of your own industry.
If you want to be a part of the solution, help the industry…
Public relations can and will evolve. Whether it’s called public relations or something else doesn’t matter. What matters is who makes up the industry and what they bring to the table.
Brands used to speak from behind a curtain. Now they’re within reach, to be praised or attacked. They’re as engaged and they are vulnerable. Healthy relationships rely on commitment, hard work, passion and sincerity. What holds that all together is communication. That means speaking and listening. The brands that will succeed, and are succeeding, understand this dynamic and use it to their advantage. You’d better believe that there are people who are damn good at what they do making that happen.
As the media landscape rapidly changes, it’s becoming increasingly important for brands to produce their own content and to have representatives who can articulate their thoughts. If your value proposition is simply that you’re a medium between clients and the media, you’ll have to evolve. Aim to write as well as the reporters you introduce clients to.
Both agency and in-house folks will have to be more nimble. Instead of studying editorial calendars and writing press releases, listen to the public. It’s the public that you’ve always been trying to reach, so now that you have new technologies for interacting with them (and measuring that interaction), why would you use the same methods you’ve been using for the past thirty years? Stop planning so much and get better at reacting.
It’s unacceptable not to offer measurable results these days. Everything is measured. And get rid of metrics like ad value equivalency (AVE) that give the industry a bad name. Measuring work using the AVE method means that if you’re my client and a half page story is written about you in Newspaper A – or often if you’re even quoted – I tell you that the value of that placement is equivalent to buying a half page advertisement in Newspaper A. Which is more valuable? It depends, on a lot of things, but one thing is obvious: they aren’t the same. Apples and oranges.
That brings me to my…
If you’re in the public relations industry and you care about it, help make it better. Be a part of the evolution. Surround yourself with other dynamic thinkers who embrace change and are capable of developing and executing plans quickly. In a fast world, big, dumb, slow-moving operations won’t last.