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Published 24 October 2012 12:34, Updated 25 October 2012 05:39
What is the most common refrain I hear from public relations consultants? Cue thinking music … never mind, you’ll never guess. It is: “I don’t actually do public relations.” Sometimes for emphasis they will add: “I’ve never done public relations and I never will” – to quote a recent lunch companion who does indeed do PR, and is very good at it.
They may reluctantly call themselves PR consultants, because that’s what their potential clients look up when they consult the Yellow Pages, but they much prefer to be known as advisers (or fancier still, counsellors) in “strategic communications”, “corporate affairs”, “public affairs” and “reputation management”.
And don’t mention press releases or media relations unless you intend to cause offence. Well, yes, they may write the odd release when the client absolutely insists, but principally they are “strategic counsellors”, and invariably they are counselling boards and c-suites. Very high level. (Which makes me wonder, who the hell is writing all those media releases my colleagues and I receive every day?)
Many PR practitioners consider PR to be tainted and a bit naff. In other words, they believe that PR has a PR problem. Like financial planners and executive coaches, they wish their calling was called something else. They believe that with a new moniker they can avoid some of the reputational baggage associated with PR. And if it’s fancy enough, perhaps justify a hike in fees.
But that baggage exists for a reason, as it will do with any quasi profession that has low barriers to entry and relies on self-regulation. The flash harries, spin doctors and carpetbaggers that over-promise, under-deliver and over-charge have not done their industry any favours. But the answer does not lie in a flimsy lick of paint.
A PR rogue who calls himself a strategic communications counsellor will be no less a rogue.
The PR industry does itself a disservice when it seeks to distance itself from itself. Instead it should be placing the focus not on labels, but on professional standards, ethical behaviour and greater accountability. Its professional body, the Public Relations Institute of Australia should give itself some teeth and be prepared to use them.
And while there are indeed many strands to public relations, media relations remains a core function. Rightly or wrongly – but understandably – PR and media relations are seen as the same thing, certainly by journalists, and by most clients.
During the 1990s it became fashionable for PR firms, as part of their efforts to reposition themselves as trusted strategic advisers, to downplay media relations as a second-order “technical” function. Media relations became a tainted term among new-breed PR firms that portrayed themselves as anything but PR firms. (It’s never been explained to me why a PR can’t be both a trusted strategic adviser as well as a media relations practitioner; indeed the pity of it is that this is not taken as a given.)
For many firms, especially those run by young turks, their response to downplaying the role of media relations was to stop hiring journalists as consultants and relying on the PR graduates being pumped out by universities. Hiring ex-journalists was considered an anachronism that no longer reflected the modern face of PR. The legacy of that conceit is still being felt.
So while the demand for media relations has never waned – despite the protests of PR firms pretending to be boardroom counsellors – the standard of media relations expertise has. Not to mention the quality of writing skills. (This would not be a problem if the universities producing PR graduates taught them to write and how the media works.)
Despite the rapid advance of social media, the relationship between PRs and journalists remains an integral link in the information chain. The ability of PRs to honestly, credibly and professionally represent their clients to the media – and for the media in turn to sift through, verify and add value to this vast quantity of information on behalf of their readers – remains a critical function.
It is well understood that social media represents a major challenge to traditional media as the sector undergoes major structural change. Social media also challenges the PR industry. The principal of a well established PR consultancy told me recently that the biggest threat to his business was not the continuing relevance of traditional news media but the number of clients being convinced to ditch PR firms in favour of social media agencies.
Traditional media and social media will in time coalesce to become “the media” once again – just as online retailers will at some point simply become retailers – and PR consultancies will include social media expertise as a matter of course. And the relationship between the media and media intermediaries – PR firms – will remain largely intact.
The challenge for the PR industry is to embrace and master its role (not to disguise it); to better articulate (and not embellish) the services and benefits it offers potential clients; to more consistently and transparently charge for those services; and to rediscover its symbiotic relationship with the media (media relations) and to get better at it instead of declaring it a lesser skill.
Rather than claiming not to do public relations; my advice to its practitioners is to reclaim PR and excel at it.