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PR is not just communications

Photo of a TV character

Is PR just communications? That’s the claim I’ve read in two blog posts this week. Is it really? PR is public relations. The clue’s in the name – public relations. Are relationships really so shallow as just to be about communications? Will whispering sweet nothings and denying impropriety really be enough to save a marriage while the philandering partner continues their affair?

Of course not. It’s a ridiculous assertion. The most important part of any relationship isn’t what you say, but what you do. That’s just as true of relationships between companies and organisations and their stakeholders as it is of personal relationships.

Public relations is about what people think about you or your organisation. It’s about your reputations with different audiences or stakeholder groups. There is far more that goes into this than just listening and saying – communicating. It’s much more than what you say, the way that you say it or the means by which you say it.

The two blog posts that sparked this article are ‘Public relations vs media relations’ and ‘Time for PR to change its name’. I’ve got a lot of time for David Meerman-Scott and frequently quote him on some of my public relations courses. However, while I wholeheartedly agree with him that “public relations and media relations are different activities”, I disagree with him on his explanation of what public relations actually is.

David says:

“Public relations simply means communicating with your constituents”.

While he’s right to say don’t confuse public relations with the subset (media relations = using the media to tell your story), it’s wrong to then think public relations is just communications. While communications is vitally important, it isn’t the same as relationships.

People make the mistake of thinking that because much of what public relations professionals do involves different forms of communication then therefore that’s what public relations is. PR professionals use communications as a way of creating, strengthening and improving relationships and reputations in order to achieve business or organisational objectives.

The reason public relations professionals rely so much on communications is because it isn’t actually enough to do the right thing. Good relationships and reputations depend on the other parties knowing what you’ve done and even better why you’ve done it and what you think.

20% strategic counsel 80% communications

It’s not exactly Pareto’s principle where 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, but it’s a good analogy. The most important part (the 20%) of what PR people do is providing expert counsel on how a company’s or organisation’s behaviour or actions will impact its relationships and reputations and recommending better courses of action. The thing PR people spend most time on (the 80%) is communicating and explaining that behaviour. Get the 20% (behaviour) wrong and all the excellent communication in the world won’t give you great relationships or great reputations. It won’t help you to achieve your business objectives.

Vandalised red phone box photoI remember this crucial aspect of public relations vividly coming to life for me when I studied for my CAM Diploma in Public Relations and my lecturer Dennis Kelly explained it using a red phone box. He used to work for BT and said that it didn’t matter how much PR they did about phone boxes public opinion wouldn’t change while phone boxes still had vandalised handsets, broken windows and had people p*****g in them.  Fix the phone boxes and you fix peoples’ opinion of them. That’s real public relations.

The second article makes the tired, old argument that PR needs to change its name. I’d be the first to agree that PR has its own reputation challenges. But what does it say about our professional ability to solve reputation problems if our collective answer is to give in and accept the critics are right? The solution to PR’s reputation challenges is changing and improving what we do and communicating this to our stakeholders and audiences.

The article asks:

“Why don’t we simply replace public relations with communications?”

The simple answer is that public relations is far more than just communications so why would using a far narrower, restricted word like communications be better?

One of my big problems is that rebranding as communications feels inaccurate and dishonest and a fundamental tenet of public relations is that it must be honest and truthful.

I don’t find any of the arguments in favour of communications over public relations to be very convincing.

One is that it is ‘simpler’, but it’s also confusing as communications has three distinct definitions, all of which are things that most businesses do. It could be transmitting information by telephone and data communication; it could be transporting things by road and rail communications; or it could be exchanging information by speaking, writing or other forms.

Another is that communications is ‘comprehensive’, when actually it is the exact opposite. It misses out the most important aspect of public relations – relationships, reputation and behaviour. I’m not sure what the article means by public relations as it confusingly says that ‘rebranding PR as communication gives us the legitimate right to extend what we do into neighbouring fields’. The confusion is that all of the neighbouring fields listed – internal communications/public affairs/social media – are integral to what professional public relations already is.

Yet another is that it is ‘clearer to business’. The first two illustrate that this isn’t true. It’s confusing and ambiguous. And it’s inaccurate, therefore unethical. The article claims “Even those that champion what we do are a bit vague about exactly what the borders of our work are.” There is a good reason for this. Public relations is one of the very few professions that needs to have a 360 degree perspective of a business. Relationships and reputations impact every single aspect of what a business does. Paying invoices on time isn’t just an issue for the accountants or lawyers, it’s also about the relationships and reputation with suppliers and potential suppliers. We wouldn’t be doing our job as public relations professionals if the borders weren’t “a bit vague”.

An argument that I hear frequently actually appears to contradict the ‘clearer’ one as it says rebranding as communications enables public relations professionals to do more and offer more services. How do we as the articles says “be clear in our own messaging and language” and know what the “borders of our work are” as at the same time growing in to what it claims are other disciplines?

The argument for changing to communications only begins to make sense if you start by misunderstanding what public relations is. Real public relations has never just been about media relations. Never. If practiced properly it has always been channel neutral and therefore made use of integrated communication channels. I started in PR in 1989 and was part of planning global display advertising campaigns to support mergers and acquisitions, media relations campaigns, building and managing exhibition stands, organising conferences and events, producing videos, publishing magazines and newsletters as well as lots and lots of design. All of these are normal, standard public relations channels.

And it’s not just me. Earlier today I spotted this Facebook post by Laura Sutherland who shares how she got in to PR:

“integrated work way back then – events, advertising, media relations, influencer relations, design, websites, animation, video… ahead of my time!”

The only bit of her excellent post I’d disagree with is “ahead of my time” as she wasn’t, but she was just doing channel neutral public relations properly from the start.

This isn’t the first time I’ve argued why it’s so important to champion public relations, rather than just communications. One of my most popular blog posts is still ‘What is PR? A definition for 2015‘.

There is also a whole other debate on if communications is even the right word to use in place of public relations, as perhaps more accurately it should be communication. The more observant of you will have noticed that throughout this article I’ve also used the word reputations, as opposed to reputation, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

I said earlier that:

“The solution to PR’s reputation challenges is changing and improving what we do and communicating this to our stakeholders and audiences.”

CIPR #PRPays banner

That’s why I believe the CIPR’s #PRPays campaign is so important.

It’s about improving the reputation of public relations by increasing understanding of what it is. But crucially the #PRPays campaign won’t work if it isn’t underpinned by action and behaviour. The CIPR’s action is providing opportunities for and championing professional ethics, continuous professional development, professional qualifications and chartered practitioner status. This is what differentiates public relations professionals from mere communicators with a phone, laptop and internet connection.

We should celebrate #PRPays because it doesn’t restrict the PR profession to the ghetto of communications. It celebrates the strategic value of public relations to the business community. The most valuable part of that strategic value is the 20% where we counsel on behaviour, not the 80% where we simply communicate.

You win a sense of smug satisfaction if you understand why I’ve used the first picture to illustrate this article.

Stuart Bruce

International Public Relations Adviser | Trainer | Author | Media Commentator | Conference Speaker | University Lecturer | Online PR | Digital Corporate Communications | Crisis Communications | Digital Public Affairs

6 Comments

  1. Great blog, thank you. Made me think more carefully about the subject.

  2. Hi Stuart,

    Thanks for mentioning my blog in your post. I just wanted to come back on a couple of your points, as I think we’re actually in agreement on the central idea – we both believe that what we do as public relations professionals has a significant positive impact on businesses and that the CIPR’s #PRpays campaign should be celebrated.

    The issue is that it isn’t PR’s critics that we are arguing with here, but our supporters. The start point for my post was that in his CIPR video John Holland-Kaye of Heathrow Airport talks about communications in its widest sense, from internal communications to external lobbying. In his mind PR seems to be one subset of communications – you can obviously argue he’s misinformed, but the concern is that this is what one of the profession’s champions believes, we should take note.

    Done properly PR has to have the element of strategic counsel and planning that you talk about. I’m not advocating that if we called ourselves “communications professionals” we’d simply pick up the phone and say the first thing that comes into our heads – the 20% of strategic counsel and planning is still there. And we also need to be channel neutral – one of my points was that whether we are talking about internal comms, media relations or public affairs it all needs to be integrated. Where we disagree is that I don’t believe that everyone, particularly outside the industry, sees all of those (and other communications disciplines) as part of PR. I appreciate that you very much believe the opposite.

    I’m also conscious that talking about changing PR’s name/reputation has been a constant refrain since I entered the industry over 20 years ago – it is a tired record. We need to be focusing on demonstrating the business/public value of what we do, and for me that is the biggest issue, irrespective of how we name it.

    Thanks

    Chris

  3. Hi Chris, apologies for delayed reply. I started on my mobile and only realised I never finished when I looked for it now 🙂

    It was disappointing to hear John Holland-Kaye consistently talk about communication, especially because I know from other people that the Heathrow comms team, at least historically, do have input on decisions and advise on behaviour.
    I don’t think it’s just people outside the industry who don’t see all these things as being part of PR, it’s people who are PR practitioners. I’m quite relaxed about what we call it externally. My website describes my business as a “management consultancy to help you modernise your public relations and communications”.
    I think the first challenge, and bigger problem, is to get public relations practitioners to understand what it is and be far more open to exploring and adopting new ideas and new ways of working.
    One of the reasons I enjoy working in countries like India is that often PR practitioners there are far more open to modernising public relations, than many in the UK.
    I like your phrase “done properly PR has to have the element of strategic counsel” as I’d argue that it isn’t public relations if it doesn’t. It’s just whatever tactic or channel the person happens to be using.

  4. No problem Stuart. I definitely agree with you that we need to get practitioners to be more open to doing new things – for too many PR is simply media relations. Ironically I think this problem can be worst in mid-size agencies that are in a comfort zone and don’t want to/are scared to change. Eventually this approach will die out through attrition and natural selection (I hope!).

  5. I am with you Stuart.
    Years ago I wrote an academic article ‘Towards Relationship Management – a Practitioner Perspective’ (JCM).
    Over the years I have refined the argument that can be summed up as :
    “PR is a profession that plans and executes changes in relationships and thereby wealth. ”

    PR has a capability to recognise and affect the multitude of interlocking cultures that affect ti lives of both people and institutions.

    In a world of radical transparency, we can see the complexities of interactive groups and ideas – cultures. This is our calling.

    … and communication:

    “If PR is an empire, then communications is, to my mind, the ‘regulus’ of PR. Regulus is Latin for a ‘petty king’. Undoubtedly communication is a key and important element in changing relationships and value but there is a greater purpose in Public Relations.”

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