Does the name ‘Public relations’ reflect what we do now?

Guest blog post: An article based upon the proposition put forward by David Van MPRIA of The De Wintern Group at the PRIA national conference, PR Directions, at a panel debate entitled “A Can of Worms” October 2011

One of the biggest can of worms in the world of public relations is the age old argument of whether the title ‘Public Relations’ still reflects what we do as an industry. The issue came to a head for me late last year when I was part of a panel advising a university on their public relations masters programme. It was the advice of the panel that the programme should focus on the management of communications rather than the simple practice of it – similar to how an MBA teaches students the strategies behind managing a business rather than how to just operate one.

When we came to discussing the naming of the course, which was along the lines of a “Masters of Communication Management’, I flippantly said that I thought the whole industry should be renamed this, as it better reflects what public relations practitioners actually do. One of the panel got most indignant and said “Relating to the public is at the heart of what we do!” I bit my tongue as I could see there was no point in arguing, however it triggered in me the question of what is Public Relations today and how do we ensure it remains relevant to businesses?

I cannot speak for all practitioners; however at De Wintern relating to publics is such a limited view of what we actually do, so much so that it bears little resemblance to what we do at all. Thinking through our current client work, what we do includes the following:

  • CEO profile enhancement
  • Reputation management
  • Litigation support
  • Issues management
  • Crisis management
  • Government relations
  • Investor relations

None of these have much to do with ‘relating to the public’ but rather they are about influencing stakeholders to achieve business outcomes. Often they are more about NOT relating to the public than simply relating stories to the public. By that I mean often our work is as much about controlling what information is made public. This is not obfuscation but necessary modern business practice. (For example ASX Listing Rules guide what and when a company can discuss information.) Our role as PR professionals is to influence and not simply distribute information.

At the risk of sounding as if I am contradicting myself, I would like to go on the record and say that I am actually in favour of the title ‘Public Relations’ Why ? It has a rich history dating back to 1949 in Australia and through common usage I believe it has come to adequately cover all the aspects of the industry as a general descriptor. However I do think it is necessary to assess its relevance from time to time and in particular ensure that the industry is providing professional services that go beyond simple story telling.

So why is it important to open this can of worms at all then? It is important as an industry, that we constantly assess our capabilities and our relevance to business. I feel that as an industry we are not good at introspection or at least we are seldom mature enough to learn from what we see and grow from this.

If we allow the industry to be dumbed-down, to be purely marketing focussed and media obsessed it risks becoming irrelevant and this adversely affect the careers of all practitioners.

If you want to see how an industry is preforming one of the best tests is to assess how many of its practitioners end up as a CEO or at least in the C-Suite of a company. The truth for PR is that there are very few. Of those who do rise up through the ranks, many stop identifying themselves as PR practitioners and adopt titles such as Head of Corporate Affairs, Director of Corporate Communication and so on.

So why do they pull away? I suspect it because they see that the simple media relations and storytelling aspect signified by the term “Public relations” just doesn’t reflect what they do.

So how do we get the C-Suite to take us seriously? The first step is to demonstrate that communications professionals are tasked with managing the most valuable asset of an organisation- its reputation. We do this by demonstrating that we understand reputation and what can affect it, that we are able to strengthen it and have the right tools to protect it. This is when you will have the C-Suite taking notice.

From a professional standing point of view, generating coverage for our clients is important but it is just not enough. If we, as PR or communications professionals, want to compete for leadership positions we need to become more business focussed. We need to work together to move the industry away from what seems like a single minded pursuit of media clippings and Facebook ‘Likes’ to managing what CEO’s and board members truly care about. If we reduce the communications function to simple, tactical media relations we add little value to an organisation and devalue the role of Public Relations.

I believe that companies need to demand more from their PR agencies. Since many large agencies must maintain dividend flow back to the parent company it can be too easy for agencies to propose the simplest programmes possible but this sells short what consultancies should offer.

Agencies should be the generators of what is best practice and developers of useful processes and tools. Consultancies should be innovators not just implementers. I believe communications consultancies should model themselves to be more like leading business consultancies such as McKinsey, etc. Smart agencies don’t just improve your clipping count they help improve the structure and strategy of both how and why organisations communicate.

By all means have your agency assist with media relations, they should, however demand they also provide you with real tools and programmes that actually help you build and protect your company’s reputation.