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Brand publicity and strategic communications are two different professions, says Bournemouth University’s Prof Tom Watson

21st February 2013

It’s time once and for all for publicity and public relations to separate. My research into the way that public relations has evolved over the last century shows that it has been in two distinct forms since the 1950s. Before then, publicity and media relations were just seen as a way of delivering an organisation’s public relations objectives and strategy. After consumer marketing took off in the 1960s and brands went world-wide, publicity appropriated the title of PR and became mainstream practice. Public relations, as it was recognised back then, became the minority method, mainly carried out in corporations and governments. In 1988, the UK PR pioneer Tim Traverse-Healy very bluntly spoke about this separation: “Communication activities such as product advertising, product publicity, editorial publicity or sales promotion ... sometimes masquerade under the banner title of public relations but in reality they are substantially dedicated to the short term sales objectives of a corporate, namely the increased take-up of products or services … Product publicity is not public relations although some opportunists fast to jump on a bandwagon would like us to believe it so.” A quarter of a century on, the representation of "publicity = PR" is unmistakeable. It is at the heart of the constant bickering over definitions, professional standards, measurement and evaluation and soul-searching over education and training. My view is that it’s time for publicity to separate from public relations. There are large numbers of talented publicity practitioners who find little similarity with strategic communicators and see no purpose in organisations like CIPR and PRCA. Yet there is no home for them which supports their businesses, helps with training and education and recognises them as a distinct practice in its own right. Last year, I proposed that CIPR reinvent itself as the organisation which focuses on the strategic communicators. Out of an estimated 60,000 people employed in “PR work” in the UK, only 9,000 are CIPR members (15 per cent). That indicates that 85 per cent choose not to join CIPR (or can’t afford to) or see themselves as separate practice which CIPR does not represent. Responses came in two forms – CIPR supporters saying “oh dear, oh dear”, the organisation needs to cover the whole spectrum for legitimacy; and publicity folks saying that CIPR is not relevant. History shows there’s been a need for professional recognition of public relations since the 1920s. The PR industry has not, however, developed the characteristics of a profession with distinct features such as widely-agreed definitions, practices, education, regulation, body of knowledge, and so on. This is because it is in a constant crisis of identity: craft publicity is always mixed up with managerial-style strategic communication. By encouraging publicity to create its own persona and structures, public relations (with its professional and industry bodies) can focus on organisational communication in strategic forms and so develop professional standing. Whether this results in some form of regulated or licensed profession is less relevant than having a clear understanding of its identity, practices and value. It is time to change and for publicity and public relations to separate and take different paths for development. It is a divorce that can produce mutual benefits. Written by Prof Tom Watson PhD, Professor of Public Relations, The Media School, Bournemouth University. Tom is a former consultancy MD and is a fellow of both CIPR and PRCA. He was chairman of PRCA from 2000-2002. Stephen Waddington has written a response on PRmoment to Tom's blog.

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