PR’s PR problem

Paul Holmes of the Holmes Report just took aim at PR firms for; “jettisoning the term “public relations.” He believes; “practitioners are turning their backs on the one thing that differentiates PR from other disciplines with whom we compete: the focus on relationships”.

And he’s right. I have always been comfortable that ‘Public Relations’ is by far the most profound and challenging definition of what it is we do.  So much more apt than just ‘communications’ or ‘engagement’ or any hybrid phrase.

But for some agencies it is damaged and it is commercially limiting.

Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) control a fee pot that is between 14 and 20 times that controlled by PR clients (or Chief Communication Officers to Paul’s point). The most challenging and lucrative tasks they assign are lead strategy and creative and the unfortunate truth is that they simply do not believe that a firm that self identifies as ‘PR’ has the skills or people to deliver on them.  At least not yet.

The same goes for some of the newer downstream tasks they control like social monitoring, analytics, performance marketing, channel planning, cause and purpose planning, web-build, research or content creation and management that many of the bigger PR agencies have the capability and ambition to deliver on top of our traditional consumer PR role.

For agencies like Burson-Marsteller or H&K that are now predominantly Corporate and Public Affairs businesses, this may not be a big issue; hence why they continue to use the PR descriptor perhaps.  But for firms like Edelman, Weber Shandwick, MSL and Golin, where the CMO is a big part of the growth ambition, it is a problem.

Weber Shandwick now describes itself as “one of the world’s leading global communications and engagement firms“. MSL says it is; “Publicis Groupe’s Strategic Communications and Engagement Company” and Golin claims to be the “relevance agency“.

I am sure, like Edelman (the ‘world’s leading Communication Marketing agency’), none of them did this lightly or without thought.

But it is the central irony of our industry that PR has a PR problem and that fixing it, even for the world’s biggest firms, would be the communications equivalent of boiling the ocean.

Not least because our most important external constituency, journalists, remain the biggest image challenge, consistently framing the industry in the worst possible terms.  They are, to a person, ‘brave purveyors of the truth’ surrounded by an ephemeral world of PR spin and black arts; or at least that is how they so often picture it.  In fact, sometimes, the only nuance to this story is whether we are motivated by pure evil or just incompetence.  At best, PR = press relations.

In this environment, the commercial decision to describe ourselves as something with less baggage seems to have been compelling for the biggest firms and for those wishing to extend the discipline of what we do (even if not the name) to the big prize of brand spending.

 

David Brain

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