I noticed on LinkedIn (yep) this morning a note by Paul Holmes, founder of The Holmes Report. He was referencing a recent study that looks at PR professionals’ attitudes and antipathy to the term ‘public relations’. Many agencies and individual practitioners are hell bent on distancing themselves from the term. There are all sorts of alternatives emerging (strategic communications, public reactions, integrated communications, brand advocacy, reputation management, ideation), many of them essentially decorative attempts to aggrandise. None of them are any better. Many of them are worse.
To quote Paul:
“The latest Global Communications Report—the result of collaboration between USC Annenberg School’s Center for Public Relations, The Holmes Report, and a host of international PR organizations—once again finds widespread dissatisfaction among PR practitioners about the term that defines their profession: only 14% of agency professionals and 13% of in-house professionals agreed with that “in five years, the term public relations will adequately describe” the work they will be doing.”
Attempts to redefine public relations are a set piece in the calendar. I suspect the case for change is driven largely by practitioners’ egocentricity. The uncomfortable cliched idea of a PR practitioner, helped on by TV portrayals, is of someone who spends their life at boozy lunches ‘relating to people’.
I’d argue that ‘public relations’ is a perfectly apt – and in my view appropriate – way of describing what we do. It’s the ‘relating’ part that we consistently misunderstand.
Relating isn’t our job. Our job is to create the things that enable our clients’ customers to relate to their brands. The relating, in other words, has nothing (ultimately) to do with us, and everything to do with the people that are intrigued by our outputs on a clients’ behalf and spurred into action.
To give a simple example: we tell a compelling story (through a combination of words and actions); the ‘public’ like the story, they’re intrigued by it and they act upon it by buying or sharing or both. The ‘public’ do the relating – and they mostly do it in public, or a public that they define, courtesy of their privacy settings.
Some truths about PR:
PR isn’t the sole preserve of the extrovert. Many of the most exceptional practitioners that I know are introverts. I like introverts. We recruit them. Please come and join us if you have a head full of ideas and you can carve beautiful things with words.
PR isn’t a discipline defined by ostentatious persuasion. Many of the people that we endeavour to build relationships with are resistant to our charms on the phone or in person. Those infamous ‘sell in’ calls to journalists, for instance, are largely useless, according our polling. Yes, we call people, but for the most part the work plays out through correspondence and is built around the quality of the idea and a sensitivity to an outlet’s editorial voice.
The same applies socially (in the digital sense). You can try to persuade someone to do something for you, but the best means of persuasion is to engineer your tactic to make it so compelling that they have no choice.
Public relations is a term that we should embrace rather than reject or feel a bit sniffy about. Advertising is fundamentally about brand awareness – a strangely static idea in the social age. PR, on the other hand, is about a more dynamic relationship. I can relate to that. Can you?