Public relations isn’t part of marketing

Stephen Waddington photoThis 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.”

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About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.

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  • http://twitter.com/markpinsent markpinsent

    Neat post Stuart.

    Just picking up on your final couple of paragraphs (the social media bit) but linking to an earlier part of the post. As you point out, social media is an ingredient in the ‘socialisation’ of many parts of the organisation beyond marketing, communications and PR. As Phil Sheldrake and I are keen on saying these days, “social media are the eggs in the social business cake.”

    And this is where the threat (for the PR industry) or opportunity (if you’re a management consultant) lies. The use of social media across an organisation isn’t solely about issues impacting reputation and therefore doesn’t solely sit in the PR comfort zone. It’s about, as you point out, recruitment, internal collaboration, product development, supply chains, customer service, sales.

    If the concept of social business – still relatively poorly-defined and understood – does gain traction, then I’d expect to see the role of PR once again restricted to the communications function, and clearing up the messes of others.

  • http://www.stuartbruce.biz/ Stuart Bruce

    Thanks Mark. Agree absolutely. And that’s my issue with the as you say ill-defined concept of ‘social business’. It’s hard, if not impossible for a single discipline to provide good counsel on every aspect of ‘social business’ and I’m uncomfortable with social media people, from whatever background, jumping in and claiming to be experts.

    I’d like to see public relations using its existing expertise in reputation, behaviour and communication as a platform to go beyond that into some of the other areas you mention. The CIPR definition of public relations is Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. I’ve always thought the most important part of that is “what you do”.

    The ‘social web’ or whatever you call it actually makes this part of the definition even more important and even starts to make a good claim for PR being at the heart of ‘social business’. But you’re absolutely right the “what you do” part is too often outside the PR comfort zone which concentrates on the “what you say and what others say about you” part.

  • http://twitter.com/mediations Philip Young

    Although I agree with a great deal of what you say Stuart (and Mark) but I have problems with the idea of reputation management. The CIPR definition rightly centres on what you do, but the “you” isn’t the PR team, it is the whole organisation. Either PR has the power to shape the way an organisation operates (and much of this has little to do with communication), or its role is merely tweak the perceptions of others that arise from their experience of that organisation. This emphasis on reputation is one of the ways PR can paint itself into an increasingly small corner.

  • David Phillips

    If you put these words into Google, you get a return that is about public relations and social media:

    jobs company consulting london definition media marketing business.

    These are the semantic concepts that people associate with public relations. (easy to do using Google Adwords semantic tool).

    This is a method used to get into the heads of our constituents. All the industry hangups and and miss conceptions are revealed.

    What is remarkable is that to join the debate, we need some basic facts.

    Assumptions about perceptions of the industry are not a good place to begin.

    We just re-enforce our own prejudices.

    That is what the Lisbon Theory is all about. It starts of asking ‘From the perspective of…..’

    So lets not get too excited until the research has been done.

  • http://twitter.com/markpinsent markpinsent

    Agree. A great PR idea should absolutely change or add to what an organisation does. You know, think Dove’s campaign for real beauty, M&S Plan A (I don’t know whether these ideas actually came from PR people, but they could have…and it’s the sort of scale PR should be thinking). But to my eyes PR has over time simply become about communicating what the organisation does (more often than not other people’s plans and initiatives). Even to the point – most depressingly of all – of being asked to generate press coverage about an organisation’s new TV ad. How did it come to that?

  • http://www.stuartbruce.biz/ Stuart Bruce

    Mark old chum, think your memory might be going. I’m fairly certain the Dove campaign for real beauty was a PR person’s idea and it was Cornelia Kunze when she was CEO of Edelman Germany. Do you remember that Edelman blogger summit we went to in Berlin? Unless my memory is going I’m fairly sure she gave a presentation there which explained how Edelman originated the idea.

    Maybe Cornelia or David Brain will stop by and confirm it?

    http://stuartbruce.biz/2006/11/dove_campaign_f.html

  • http://www.stuartbruce.biz/ Stuart Bruce

    I agree there is a difference between much of the everyday practice of what many PR people do and what they should do.

    It should be that we are true counsellors advising on when and how an organisation could modify the way it operates. But too frequently we simply warn of potential problems and then deal with the aftermath.

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  • http://twitter.com/marcopolosblog Robert Conaty

    An interesting post, Stuart. Speaking from a personal perspective, I’m not sure I agree that a turf war is underway between management consultancy, PR and marketing. I work in a management consultancy for public sector clients. I have found that we are now collaborating with PR firms more than ever because clients demand a balance of our public policy expertise and the reputation management/ profile building provided by your profession. So we work within a consortium a lot. What is perhaps happening is a blurring of specialisms with each profession (marketing, PR and management consultancy) having to demonstrate flexibility and show a broader range of expertise. If this is so, aren’t attempts to strictly define boundaries between specialisms quite counterproductive for the firm?

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