This blog post started as a comment on Stephen ‘Wadds’ Waddington’s thought-provoking article about ‘The public relations industry’s confidence problem’, but it was so thought-provoking the comment rapidly became too long.
His central thesis is that public relations is too introspective and needs to have more confidence of the role it plays in the broader economy. I’d go further and say public relations doesn’t just play a significant role in the economy, but also in politics and society/social. The first three of the PEST analysis, which are all being changed by technology.
If advertising and digital agencies don’t eat PR’s lunch, then management consultants might
Wadds says there is a “turf war taking place between advertising, public relations and digital”. Another war that Wadds hints at, but doesn’t mention, is when he talks of “earns the place that it deserves as a management discipline” is with management consultants. Public relations professionals are not the only people to recognise that public relations should be a serious business discipline and that means we’re also competing with the big global management consultancies.
I think a major reason for public relations’ confidence problem is its identity problem. Public relations practitioners aren’t even sure and can’t agree on what it is we actually do. Worrying how we define ourselves seems introspective, but it’s hard to be confident about who you are if you don’t know yourself. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that others do ‘define’ public relations, usually incorrectly in narrow and derogatory ways. Too many public relations practitioners don’t do our business any favours by perpetuating the myths about what PR really is.
PR is not just part of marketing
If we are to be seen as a true management discipline as Wadds asserts then we can’t allow ourselves to be defined as mere publicists or as simply part of marketing. Public relations and marketing are totally different disciplines and the confusion arises because both will often use some of the same tactics. It’s quite legitimate for public relations to use paid media. It’s not even new, I did it 20 years ago with full-page display advertisements in trade press across the world, as part of a corporate restructuring.
Part of the challenge we have as public relations professionals is that we don’t start off with the same budgets or even ‘share of mind’ within clients as some of our competitor disciplines do. Advertising and digital agencies typically have bigger budgets so can afford to experiment. Using a small percentage of their existing spend they can try something new to see if it works in this time of massive change in society and media. In contrast you’d need a bigger percentage of most public relations budgets which means you don’t have enough left for the tried and trusted. Therefore the leviathan advertising agencies can ironically be more agile than the theoretically smaller more nimble public relations consultancies.
Wadds’s example of a retail brand working with a peer analytics firm such as Klout, Kred or PeerIndex to identify and target online influencers could be done by an advertising agency simply pulling one or two TV slots to find the budget. A PR agency might need to significantly reduce the time it spends working with influential journalists in order to spend that budget on working with the new influencers.
The challenge from management consultants is that their consultancy day rate frequently dwarfs the day rate of a public relations consultancy. This in turn means they pay bigger salaries and get better people. That’s not to criticise public relations people, but the fact is that many of the best do it because they enjoy it. They are bright enough people that if they’d entered a better paid profession such as management consultancy, law or accountancy then they’d earn a lot more. They chose public relations because they enjoy it. But this makes it hard for the public relations profession to attract the brightest and best graduates.
Is PR too introspective?
Wadds claims that the public relations industry is too introspective because it is obsessed with “inward focussed issues such as whether it is a profession and the issue of measurement”.
So what’s the answer? I think Wadd’s blog post perhaps starts to provide some of them. He’s right we need to win the professionalism debate through action. Despite being a Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) member for my whole career I didn’t complete its continuous professional development scheme until 2012. That’s wrong and I know I should become a chartered practitioner, but I’m not afraid to admit that the time involved still makes me hesitate. As a newly elected CIPR council member I feel obligated to at least complete CPD, but really I should also complete the accreditation to become a CIPR Chartered Practitioner.
He says that solid work is now being done by organisations such as AMEC to improve measurement and evaluation. This is one area where public relations could be more confident. Public relations is perceived as not being very good at measurement and evaluation. The fact is that we’re getting a lot better. The dirty little secret of much of the advertising and digital agency world is that they might be better at measuring stuff, but much of their evaluation is just as flawed as that used for public relations. Public relations needs to start being confident about what it can measure and evaluate, rather than worrying about what it can’t.
“The debate about who owns social media is flawed…”
… says Stephen as “The future will be owned by the practitioners that define it”. And he’s right. It’s also a sterile debate as social media doesn’t necessarily need to be owned by anyone. The fact is that social media needs to be used by human resources, legal, customer services, marketing, IT, public relations et al. As well as using social media itself one of the main roles of public relations is to ensure that others within the organisation don’t abuse or use social media badly, which will inevitably lead to reputational damage.
Public relations therefore has a dual role with social media. Firstly to use if effectively itself. Secondly, to coordinate and lead its use by others. In most companies and organisations public relations has a unique 360 degree perspective because reputational issues can arise from anywhere. That makes PR uniquely placed to lead on something that also has a 360 degree impact on the company or organisation. The danger is that there are disciplines out there, such as marketing and advertising, who might want to ‘own it’ and those disciplines are far more narrowly focused so while capable of doing brilliant work won’t necessarily sufficiently get the wider implications. That’s what we need to guard against.
It’s time for public relations professionals to take the advice of Mark Borkowski and Stephen Waddington and “find our swagger.”