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PR is obsessed about being a profession, says Frank PR’s founder Graham Goodkind

14th January 2013

I remember once going to visit my elderly grandmother who, at the time, was living in an old people’s home, shortly after I just started out in PR and not long before the end of her days. I told her that I’d got a job and, excitedly, she asked me what it was. I explained that I was an account executive (at a PR agency). A big smile came across her face; I could tell that it made her happy and proud. I didn’t even really know what PR was before I fell into it, so I was a bit surprised that she appeared to. But anyway, she was pleased, so I was pleased.

It wasn’t until my next visit when she introduced me to other residents in the home as “my grandson, he’s an accountant you know” that I realised the reason for that pride the week or so before. Clearly the only word she registered was “account” and thus she carried on believing, until the day she passed away, that her grandson had got a job in one of the professions that were, for her generation at least, the pinnacle in the world of employment.

For the last few years, it feels as though many in the PR industry have carried on from where my grandmother left off, ramping up that status. I even seemed to have acquired some designations after my name. It’s as though we’re trying to be positioned alongside accountants and lawyers as doyens of professional advice. Thinking that it is going to help us “dine at the top table“, so to speak.

While on the one hand I get that, I can’t help thinking that we’re missing the point here. For me, PR is an art, not a profession. Sure you do it professionally, but that is different. And in our obsession with profession, perhaps we’re not paying as much attention as we should do to the art of PR? I think we’re losing touch with what made us special, as we try our best to fit in with the rest of the corporate world. And therefore, I raise the question, is PR becoming a dying art?

A friend of mine, who is in the arts world and knows I have a few quid, tried to interest me in a Tracey Emin neon artwork the other day. Emin is quite famous for them. I nearly fell off my chair when I was told it was £60,000, I loved it but it wasn’t for me! Emin is not short of a few bob and there is clearly a real appetite for her works of art.

It’s one of those things looks like it probably took her about half an hour to come up with and create. But she’s not selling it for the equivalent of half an hour of her time. No one really cares about that anyway, they are just blown away with what they take out of it. But professions don’t work like that. They’re more about quantifying the input than marvelling at the output.

Which is the main reason I think that PR is an art and we should put the profession stuff on the backburner if we want to get back on track. It’s a distraction and is taking us down the wrong path. We create stuff. Often starting with a blank canvas. We come up with ideas that, when at their best, can change a client’s fortunes for the better. A great insight or strategy can turn round a brand. A nugget of a concept that is then brilliantly executed can mean a challenger brand leapfrogs its rival and becomes the dominant player in its category. Or an ailing brand can have its fortunes revived with a stroke of creative genius. Now that is an art.

I heard the other day of a big PR agency that decided to get rid of the daily papers (I won’t embarrass it). I reckon it did so thinking it would be all cool and clever and say how it was now about social media these days and this was its visible “statement” to support that.

But the ritual of skimming through the daily papers, picking up on the zeitgeist, getting ideas and then going to clients with ways to commandeer the news agenda to their advantage is really fundamental to the art of PR. At Frank PR we call it “Agendaneering” and it is intrinsic to how we work. To me, it’s what PR is all about and always will be. It takes a certain person to be able to do this and you’ve got to learn that art. Sure, these days, you’ll also want to take in key blogs, what’s trending on Twitter, various other online media outlets as part of this news agenda, but stopping the newspapers is like blindfolding an artist and taking away his or her easel.

The art of PR relies on turning on a sixpence, not like an oil tanker. Too many agencies have become oil tankers. They’ve got too fixated and worried about being at the top table. Artists don’t jostle for position, all sorts of stuff opens up for them because they’re interesting, inspiring and game changing.

Because of our obsession with profession, I worry that a lot of people coming into PR and others working at many agencies within it do not see the fascination for great thinking and ideas, those Emin-like moments, as fundamental to the art of what we do.

I hope 2013 sees a reassessment otherwise PR might sadly become a very boring thing to do. A bit like accountancy in fact (sorry Grandma).

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