Public relations: Beyond communication

How PR can go up where it belongs

The public relations industry has two big public relations challenges. The first is the frequent association of PR with ‘spin’ – the intentional, unethical distortion of reality for competitive advantage. The second is the narrow association of PR with publicity.

The result: consultancies and clients alike have moved toward the term ‘communication’ (in the singular or plural) to describe what we do and what our clients need. Is this a mistake?

Paul Holmes thinks so. In a ‘must-read’ essay for every PR consultant, the veteran industry thinker recalls Arthur Page’s axiom that ‘public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.’ Paul argues that this is a clear challenge to those who see PR as synonymous with communication.

He’s right. Communication may be a huge part of what we do, but it can’t be the only thing we do if we are to be truly effective in advising our clients on how to strengthen their relationships, their reputations and the value of their organizations and brands.

As Paul points out, these are not new ideas; the idea of public relations having a broader role was intrinsic to the vision of Page and other pioneers of the profession.

So, how do we get back to where we once belonged? Here are a few principles for professionals and clients:

  • Customer knowledge: the first duty. Understanding a client’s publics is the first duty of effective public relations. We hear much about the growing use of behavioural sciences to inform PR. The re-emergence of this idea is driven by the growing gap between what people tell market researchers and what they actually do. This creates a need for more sophisticated understanding of both attitudes and behaviour.
  • Character and values drive what we say — and what we do. The Arthur W. Page Society, the Global Alliance and other PR thought leaders argue persuasively that the definition of corporate character — and the values that flow from it — is becoming a core role for public relations. In an age where organizations have so little control over their reputations, both the actions and the communications of executives and employees must be guided by a clear sense of the organization’s character and values.
  • Content creation is the domain of PR. Julia Hood of Haymarket Media, the publisher of PR Week, put it nicely at a recent conference: ‘Content is a land grab that communicators are winning.’ She sees an imperative for thought leadership that isn’t ‘marketing swill,’ because it’s a platform for the authentic audience engagement that has become a primary source of lead generation.
  • Customer service is the new marketing. Google this phrase. It’s ubiquitous, with good reason. The combination of customers having both global publishing power and influence over their peers is rewriting the rules of marketing. As corporate spending shifts from mass marketing to direct marketing to social influence marketing, the PR professional’s core skills of understanding, engaging and influencing an audience become more critical than ever.  Steve Cody of Peppercom, one of America’s top independent firms, sees a role for PR firms in ‘closing the gap between what a company says through marketing and what customers are saying about their experience.’ Solving a problem in public — in front of the entire community — does wonders for an organization’s reputation.

There’s been much talk in PR industry circles this year about the need to define the profession. While this is a good thing, perhaps there is virtue in definitions that retain some breadth, flexibility and even a little bit of ambiguity. After all, we live in an age of blurred borders between disciplines, and between the creators and consumers of content.

Early public relations thinkers often wrote about the need to transform executives’ views of PR from a one-way process, driven by the goals of the organization, to a two-way process of relationship-building, driven by both organizational goals and the public’s interest.

Today’s environment presents the public relations profession with an unparalleled opportunity to go beyond communication — both practising what we preach and perfecting what we practise.