Where Is The Respect For Public Relations Pros?

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Respect for PR professionalsLately I’ve been wondering if those of us in the public relations industry are ever really going to do the things necessary to earn the respect most people in this business deserve. Sure, there are plenty of PR hacks out there. But as with every industry, for every hack, there are dozens of knowledgeable, experienced, ethical and talented PR pros.

So, how do those of us who care about things—like respect for our chosen profession—go about making that a reality? Good question!

Here are some thoughts to consider:

I’ve said that I don’t think we need a new definition of what those of us in the business of public relations do. And if you’re in the PR industry, you should consider what Harold Burson, co-founder of Burson Marstellar, had to say a year or so before the ‘new definition’ of PR was revealed:

Public relations is a process that impacts public opinion. Its objective is to motivate individuals or groups to take a specific action. Like buying a certain brand of toothpaste or automobile; voting for a specific candidate; supporting one side or the other of a political issue; signing up with one cable provider over another. As such, public relations is an applied social science that draws on several social sciences, among them psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, geography. Actually, one could more accurately describe public relations as a maturing applied social science. It is all too slowly developing theories and a body of knowledge, mainly case histories, that can bring about greater discipline, uniformity and predictability in delivering our services.

Everything we do is directed at people’s opinions and attitudes. We can affect opinions and attitudes in only three ways,

One, we can seek to change a presently held opinion or attitude.

Two, we can seek to create a new opinion or attitude.

Three, we can reinforce an existing opinion.

In 2011/2012, for some reason, PRSA lead a crowdsourcing campaign and a public vote (that resulted in some 1,447 votes in an industry that is exponentially larger) to ‘modernize’ the definition of public relations. The result? A modernized definition of public relations that reads like this:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

As you might imagine, Burson wasn’t all that thrilled with that newfangled definition. And this quote succinctly sums up his thoughts:

As for a definition of public relations, I believe the most authoritative goes back to Edward L. Bernay’s classic Crystalizing Public Opinion published in 1923. It forms the basis of a definition I have valued over the years:

Public relations (pub’lic rel-la’shuns) n. sing. – An applied social science that influences behavior and policy, when communicated effectively, motivates an individual or group to a specific course of action by creating, changing or reinforcing opinions and attitudes. Its ultimate objective is persuasion that results in a certain action which, to succeed, must serve the public interest.

What Burson says makes great sense to me. His argument, essentially, is that by reducing the role of public relations professionals to that of communicators, we take the heart of what we really do out of the equation, and thereby diminish the value we bring. Why in the world would anyone want to redefine a profession in such a manner that diminishes its role and/or its ultimate value? On this, I’m with Burson.

I also think that Paul Holmes of the Holmes Report makes quite a bit of sense his essay entitled “What Is A Public Relations Consultancy?“.

One of the big points both Burson and Holmes are making is that we’ve collectively gotten too caught up in our push to publish a story at the expense of what we really do. And that is functioning in our role as consultants and business advisors to the organizations for whom we work. Telling the story is only part of what public relations needs to become again. Our real mission is—or at least should be, persuading, motivating, changing thoughts and opinions, affecting change in a way that benefits and serves the public interest. At least that’s why I got into this business–how about you?

Jack Martin, global chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, makes that point in his Fifth Seat Philosophy that the Holmes Report quoted in this article:

“When faced with significant strategic decisions, companies traditionally turn to four advisors: legal counsel, investment bankers, management consultants and forensic accountants,” the firm’s website explained. “Each is trusted to review their area of expertise, but none factor public trust into their final analysis. We fill a Fifth Seat in your boardroom, helping transform your corporate reputation into competitive advantage.”

And that, my friends, is the heart and soul of public relations. Or at least I proffer that it should be. Taking a seat in the boardrooms of the companies we serve, large or small, and helping transform corporate reputation into a competitive advantage. Helping to affect change, in some fashion or another. Doesn’t that sound infinitely more like something you’d like to devote your career to than that ‘new’ definition of PR referenced above?

All of this? Well, it’s making me think about what we should be doing differently. Sure, we’ve got people in this business who don’t live up to high standards, but what profession doesn’t? Step up and throw the first stone if you think you work in an industry that doesn’t contain a few snake oil salesmen and that doesn’t make mistakes along the way.

Most of us in the public relations industry work very hard at taking our clients’ interests to heart as well as the public’s interests to heart. And we work very hard at doing the job the way it should be done.

But we do need to work on our industry’s reputation. Clearly. What do you think? What should we be doing differently? If you’re in the PR industry, is your role similar to what Burson defined—or not? How so?

 

Rick Rice is an independent consultant with more than 35 years in public relations working in both corporate and agency jobs. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and non-U.S. governments. Most of his work has been in corporate and crisis communications. You can find Rick on Twitter or learn more at his website. Shelly nagged at him so much he finally agreed to guest post here.

 

 

 

 

Lead image by TimParkinson via Creative Commons

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  • http://kellyashley.tumblr.com/ Kelly Byrd

    Rick,

    I also agree with Harold Burson that reducing the role of public relations professionals to communication alone greatly diminishes our value. It also diminishes the ‘mission’ of many new professional to the field.

    I do, however, think that public relations does need a new definition. This should not be the focal point of our industry, but, to re-quote Patrick Slevin’s PR Week article on the subject (http://bit.ly/LH7Niy)

    “As PR practitioners, it’s our responsibility to further the public dialogue. It’s our charge to educate and inform audiences and allow them the opportunity to reject or accept our messages, impressions, and meanings, which is the way of public relations.”

    …including the dialogue about what our industry’s purpose is.

    I think that PR professionals do not check their own messaging on what we do enough, which also diminishes our value. Being able to adequately explain your career choice is important, and something I’m still personally working on: bit.ly/Jx1Txd.

    Thanks for this great post!

    • http://RTRViews.com Rick Rice

      Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for checking in and sharing the post.

      I’m at the stage in my career where it feels like we’ve talked this to death and feel that what we really need is to start actually doing things differently. We need to adjust the education and professional development for people in this business, start measuring what we accomplish instead of what we produce, and look at how we can stop selling hours and start getting compensated for results we deliver.

      We’ve got adequate definitions. What we need is a focus on educating people about the good things PR professionals do day in and day out. I frequently have to remind clients, just saying something doesn’t make it believable or true. We need to do the things necessary to get more PR people a seat at the table.

      • http://kellyashley.tumblr.com/ Kelly Byrd

        Hi Rick,

        You’re very welcome.

        I totally agree, but I feel an accurate definition is a key part of education.

        When I began working in PR, it was because I had an interest in marketing and a friend knew of an internship opportunity. I was educated about the industry through work, which, at first, was very limited. I am still learning the full scope of the industry and roles of higher-level communications professionals.

        I find too often, as mentioned in the comments on my post, that the comparison is ‘free advertising’, when, in fact, PR many professionals [tend to] take great offence to comparing their work to advertising.

        Educating people about the industry begins with allowing them to describe it to others – especially when the industry focus is communicating effectively.

        Thanks for this discussion. I really appreciate hearing the perspective of someone with much more experience!

      • http://kellyashley.tumblr.com/ Kelly Byrd

        Hi Rick,

        You’re very welcome.

        I totally agree, but I feel an accurate definition is a key part of education.

        When I began working in PR, it was because I had an interest in marketing and a friend knew of an internship opportunity. I was educated about the industry through work, which, at first, was very limited. I am still learning the full scope of the industry and roles of higher-level communications professionals.

        I find too often, as mentioned in the comments on my post, that the comparison is ‘free advertising’, when, in fact, PR many professionals [tend to] take great offence to comparing their work to advertising.

        Educating people about the industry begins with allowing them to describe it to others – especially when the industry focus is communicating effectively.

        Thanks for this discussion. I really appreciate hearing the perspective of someone with much more experience!

        • http://RTRViews.com Rick Rice

          Kelly,

          My problem with ‘free advertising’ is that it, again, focuses on just the communications part of the business.

          Most of my career has been in corporate, crisis and financial PR but I’ve done a bit of marketing. At their core they do the same thing. In marketing PR you’re selling a product or service. In corporate you are selling an idea, issue, or some other intangible.

          Take a look at some of the established definitions of PR and see what works for. New doesn’t always mean better but I am certainly willing to learn if something better comes along. I put my thoughts on that here http://rtrviews.com/2011/07/25/tools/ before the whole PRSA debate was on my radar screen.

          Does that make sense and help?

        • http://RTRViews.com Rick Rice

          Kelly,

          My problem with ‘free advertising’ is that it, again, focuses on just the communications part of the business.

          Most of my career has been in corporate, crisis and financial PR but I’ve done a bit of marketing. At their core they do the same thing. In marketing PR you’re selling a product or service. In corporate you are selling an idea, issue, or some other intangible.

          Take a look at some of the established definitions of PR and see what works for. New doesn’t always mean better but I am certainly willing to learn if something better comes along. I put my thoughts on that here http://rtrviews.com/2011/07/25/tools/ before the whole PRSA debate was on my radar screen.

          Does that make sense and help?

          • http://kellyashley.tumblr.com/ Kelly Byrd

            Hi Rick,

            That does make sense, but I still feel that an accurate definition is an important part of – if not the first step of – education about the industry.

            Thank you for sharing your perspective!

          • http://RTRViews.com Rick Rice

            @KellyByrd:disqus I’m really curious what you think is inaccurate – and why you think that – about the established definitions, including the one by the person credited with founding our industry.

          • http://kellyashley.tumblr.com/ Kelly Byrd

            Hi Rick,

            I was referring to PRSA’s current definition, which I feel is very limited.

          • http://RTRViews.com Rick Rice

            @KellyByrd:disqus Totally agree! I find it inaccurate and obscure. :)

  • David C. Baker

    In full disclosure, I’m a management consultant (http://www.recourses.com) that has worked with 700+ marketing firms, including probably 80 PR firms. Why does PR as a whole suffer from a reputation problem? Because too many of them are still making most of their money in media relations, which is the bottom feeder service in that industry. And also because though they are smart people, their “success” as measured by clients depends too much on the relationships they have. What PR has going for it is smart people connected at the highest levels within the client organization. What they really lack, though, is an understanding of their OWN positioning, their own roles within the firm, and how to sell anything besides hours.

    • http://RTRViews.com Rick Rice

      David, I couldn’t agree with you more. We have to start basing PR objectives on real business goals and start selling something other than time. There is nothing wrong with media relations but PR is much more than that.

      Thanks for stopping by and joining in!

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