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Why PR mustn’t be shy of its publicity and promotion roots

Public relations is a promotional industry. It uses publicity to promote ideas, products, services, interests, policies, people, organisations, and more. Even those who disdain PR draw on a promotional playbook to share their critique.

Look at social media where everyone is trying to attract attention, persuade others, and stand out from the crowd. A similar observation was made by Samuel Johnson in 1751 writing in The Rambler, one of the new middle-class magazines that made him famous.

Yet, talk to PR communicators, academics, educators, and professional bodies and you’ll soon get a sense that promotion isn’t good practice. Before addressing this issue, here’s my case for embracing promotion within PR work

1. Promotion is what PR practice does.

PR relates to everyday communications. Dialogue and discussion, advocacy and argument, application of behavioural sciences; describe it how you will - but what PR does is inherently promotional and persuasive in its nature.

2. Promotional communication isn’t unethical.

Using the Global Alliance definition of ethical communication, promotion is as honest, fair, responsible, respectful, transparent, accurate, appropriate, and non-manipulative as other ways of communicating. Indeed, forms of promotion activity are regulated by various bodies, codes of practice, and legal requirements.

3. Promotional communication is accessible to all.

Claims within promotional materials can be checked, verified, and publicly held to account. This requires open and equitable access, willingness to listen, and ability to ‘speak truth to power’.

4. Promotional communication is the marketplace for PR practice.

PR is a competitive industry trading in promotional ‘products’ (such as stories, words, and images) in the various marketplaces where its work is done (eg, media, politics, online, and inside organisations).

5. PR defaults to a promotional mindset.

Promotion dominates how PR addresses issues within the profession and is the default method used to explain PR to practitioners, clients, media, students, politicians, and other stakeholders.

In essence, the argument is that throughout PR practice and the profession there is clear evidence of thinking and behaviour that is predominantly promotional. So why is promotion a problem?

Has the PR establishment become anti promotional?

A common rebuttal of PR as promotional practice is that this conveys a tactical rather than a strategic management perspective. Promotion is viewed as short-term, opportunistic, and easy to do - ‘just’ events and campaigns. Another line is that its tactical work done by ‘juniors’ and will be replaced by technology (the latest prediction involves AI).

The implication is that anyone can do promo work, so it lacks value. In other words, more money and influence can be gained talking strategy in the boardroom. At the same time, a protectionist perspective advocates a differentiated identity for ‘professional’ PR practitioners.

Not only have these beliefs been around for decades, but undoubtedly the growth and recognition of PR over this time is the result of its place in an increasingly globalised, marketised, and digitalised promotional culture. That’s part of its reputation.

Yes, promotional approaches are problematic when used in ‘closed’ places or to obfuscate rather than illuminate what should be framed openly as unbiased messages and activities. Greater reflexivity, transparency, and education is needed to ensure the sources, processes and products of promotional work are acknowledged and it is practiced ethically from purpose to outcome.

In the spirit of ensuring promotional practice is embraced as an aspect of ‘good’ PR, I’ve developed a simple model. This is a straightforward way to help colleagues and clients think through promotional work in a logical way that adds value. I’ve called it PROMO. It reflects how Purpose relates to decisions about Reach, Outputs and Methods that inform measurable Outcomes.

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Written by Heather Yaxley, regular PRmoment columnist and managing consultant at Applause Consultancy

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