Tuesday, 7 February 2017

What IS public relations?

Despite the fact I have worked in the PR industry for over 11 years and now teach its core principles to the budding practitioners of tomorrow, I still struggle to define what PR is.

And I don't think I am alone.

Ask most people about public relations and you're likely to receive one of three reactions:
  1. A blank expression – they haven’t a clue what PR is.
  2. “It’s like advertising, isn’t it?” – they have a general impression that it’s something to do with marketing but not quite sure what's involved.
  3. A slight sneer, as they think of the PR’s of old – Max Clifford, Alastair Campbell and even Eddie and Patsy of AbFab being the main cultural reference points Joe Public has had for PR professionals.
Any of these responses are perfectly acceptable. As I say, I still struggle to explain what I do in a succinct, easy to understand fashion.
And I don’t believe I’m alone. PR has a bit of a PR problem. 
Why? It’s not a new battle, but recently I’ve seen the definition and responsibility of PR challenged. We’ve never had so many routes to market. But, never before has our target end user been so savvy, so cynical or so in control.

Advertising sells. Everyone knows that.
The press inform. This should still be the core function of newspapers, magazines, online sites, with a dose of education (if we’re lucky) and inspiration (the Holy Grail of communication).
Television and radio entertains. First and foremost, at least, along with the attributes of the above.
Social media creates conversations. We do it, brands do it.
PR? PR persuades. At least, that’s what PR professionals understand and try to do. But this is inevitably getting harder to do so.
People have free will, after all. And so do the media, and as PR professionals, we operate in the middle ground in-between the two; trying to find new, engaging ways to influence one to influence the other.

“Public relations is the discipline that looks after an organisation's
reputation. Its aim is to win understanding and support, and
influence opinion and behaviour.

“It establishes and maintains goodwill and mutual understanding
between an organisation and its publics.”

Chartered Institute of Public Relations

If a key part of PR's role is to raise awareness and gain understanding, it could be argued that it does so at its own expense. Good PR means that the focus is exactly where intended - the client - and not on the PR itself. It's perhaps a paradox then that PR is largely misunderstood, even by those that practice it.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to PR. Yet, at the same time, PR is about public relations which gives it an agile quality that other marketing practices can lack.
The lines of PR have always been blurred but they’ve never been quite as undefined as they are today. There’s various different factors influencing the industry – and we’re at odds with each other trying to define what our role should be.
Not so long ago, content was proclaimed king. And PR’s rejoiced as it put them at the heart of the communications mix. Hurrah!
But then, with the rise and accountability of digital, the medium became the message once more. It wasn’t enough to just have a good story; you had to know how to retell it and sell it in unlimited formats, and know when and where it should be picked up for utmost enjoyment – and retainment.

Are we, then, professional persuaders? 

“PR is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that 
further its sponsor’s objectives.

It works primarily through the use of media relations and other
 forms of third-party endorsement.”

Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy, PR – A Persuasive Industry?

This content vs. medium conflict has led some agencies to try and repackage themselves as ‘content marketeers’ or ‘professional influencers’. Surely, these are just new buzz words? Another communications trend that has come in and will no doubt go out of style just as quickly? For the very framing of the PR profession in this way is exactly what’s wrong with its persona – it’s unspecific, it’s pompous and ultimately, what does it really mean?

Maybe PR today is actually indefinable, could it in fact be in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps.

Maybe Eddie said it best after all...

"I PR things. Places. Concepts. Lulu.
I PR them… I make them fabulous.
I make the crap into credible. I make the dull into delicious.

Post by: Kelly O'Hanlon, Senior Lecturer in PR at BCU
Read the original post (in part) on the One Black Bear blog.

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