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Elementary my dear Watson

25th February 2013


Bournemouth University's Tom Watson has called for a separation between publicity and public relations. It's a debate that has been on-going for more than 25 years. Watson cites a quote from UK public relations pioneer Tim Traverse-Healy from 1988. "Product publicity is not public relations although some opportunists fast to jump on a bandwagon would like us to believe it so," he said. The fact that this debate has been in play since I was a university undergraduate suggests that the argument is either flawed or irrelevant. As media fragments from print to online and social media enables organisations to establish a two-way relationship with audiences, the public relations industry is better placed than ever before to assert its role as a management discipline. I'd argue that publicity as means of engaging an audience via the proxy of traditional media has a role within public relations practice. To deny otherwise is elitist. Media fragmentation is one of the two huge issues facing our industry. The other is the slow march to professionalism. The public relations industry is going through massive change as a result of media fragmentation that is forcing the adoption of more rigorous processes and workflow. We're re-tooling and re-skilling mid-flight. That's far tougher than starting over. Research, planning and measurement are all critical disciplines for the public relations practitioner operating in the modern media environment. It's only by embracing this change and adopting the rigour of a profession that the public relations industry will earn its rightful place alongside other professional advisors. Rigour means training and qualifications, continuous professional development (CPD) and Chartered accreditation. Watson is right to raise this argument because it remains unresolved. But like the PRSA effort to crowdsource a definition of public relations last year this is only an argument that could be played out in our industry. We debate our vision and purpose while other industries crack on and reinvent the future. It demonstrates a lack of confidence in our value. That's where the real need for change lies. Stephen Waddington is European Digital and Social Media Director at Ketchum and is based in their London office.

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