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Embracing the 'undefinedness' of public relations

PR may be a long-established industry, but many outside of it still have little understanding of what PR is and does. John Broy, client services director at PR agency Whiteoaks International, says: “Amazingly, misconceptions of PR still exist in 2019 – as the recent BBC Radio 4 Media Show highlighted. Outside the industry there are those who believe it’s still made up of long lunches and purposeless meetings with big ideas that lead to little or have zero connection to wider business goals”

Discussing what PR is really about, Broy says: “PR is full of bright, ambitious and professional people who can clearly articulate their opinions, are expert listeners and are clearly focused on delivering meaningful campaigns to support a client’s business objectives. PR is now made up of a mix of skillsets from talented copywriters, dynamic digital experts and hungry media execs bridging the gap between journalists and influencers with clients, to deliver worthwhile content, through to strategic thinkers plotting campaigns that provide tangible results. PR couldn’t exist without these individuals coming together and creating exciting, integrated campaigns and results. And it’s the results that are vital. It is entirely possible to benchmark clients’ goals, quantify PR results and ultimately measure success – whether it’s through media relations, content marketing, digital or an integrated campaign.”

PR’s mysticism

It may be disappointing that PR is not fully appreciated, but as Kelly McDaid, head of content partnerships at website Vouchercloud, says, in some ways this is a good thing: “PR mysticism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it lumps us in with the likes of spin doctors and Ab Fab… but on the other, it gives the industry an almost magical quality – that we can be anywhere and do anything.

“Obviously, we’re not magicians, but it helps us to be perceived as such – at least externally. Even if we can’t realistically be everywhere and know everything, it’s a hugely impactful tool for people to believe it. If people see PR in action, then it’s more often than not badly done.

“The external misconception about what PR actually is, at first glance, looks like a failing of the industry. On a closer inspection, however, it becomes clearer as a useful tool. For those who know, PR is a uniquely valuable tool. For those who don’t, the act of influencing becomes easier.

“The sector as a whole is booming at the moment – it’s a mark of significant success where a ‘struggling industry’ reports ‘just’ 5% growth. Other industries would kill for figures like that.

“With strong year on year growth, and decision makers (for the most part) well informed about the benefit that a strong PR function can bring, why change the status quo? It’s obviously working.”

How to improve PR’s PR

It may benefit PR to hold on to some mystique, but there’s no harm in improving its image. Here are six suggestions for the best ways to do this:

1. First, we must identify the problem

Richard Bailey, public relations educator and editor of, says: “Public relations is understood as publicity. I see it as problem solving.

“Now, there are some short-term problems that might be solved by publicity and promotions ('bums on seats' is one; quarterly sales targets might be another), but most PR is involved in longer-term or more intractable problems. Why don't they love us? Why don't they understand us? Why don't they trust what we're saying?

“Put like this, PR rarely has a communications problem. It almost always has a problem-problem. In other words, you first need to identify the issue or problem before you can decide what needs saying to whom, through which channel, and to what effect. Ask 'why', not 'what'.

“If you do this, then you'll be a PR manager and not just a publicity person. It makes the job more challenging, more rewarding, more respected – and more likely to be future proof.”


2. We must focus on what we are good at

John Brown, founder of PR firm Don’t Cry Wolf, says: “We've been bleating on for decades about 'what PR is'. Every year we decide it's something different or something that we dismissed five years earlier. Then we soil ourselves when the public doesn’t understand us.

“A definition is only useful as an answer to a question in some dreary business studies exam in a chilly higher education sports hall.

“Others will make up their opinion based on the work we do. We're not about publicity? Bullshit, there’s loads of professionals and agencies on the CIPR and PRCA roster that do just that.

“So we're not about change management? Nonsense, we do that too, but the media don’t find that as sexy as hearing about how one ‘PR professional’ kept some Z-Lister’s balloon fetish off the sofa of Good Morning Britain.

“We should stop pissing our pants every time someone doesn't define us in a way that pleases our precious souls. It shows weakness. Instead, let's focus on what we're amazing at. If that’s publicity and media management, so be it, I’ll be out of a job and the public will have been right. If it’s something strategic and creative, happy days, I’ll cash in and public perception will change.”

3. We must be our brand

Natasha Hill, managing director of PR agency Bottle, says: “For me, it all comes down to BEING our brand. We – from the exec to the agency or brand leader – can’t just tell the world what we do and expect the public to buy it. We have to be the brand, and show them, day in day out, what we stand for.  

“We need to let the world see that we’re truth hunters, not story spinners; that we tell authentic stories, and not spin out cheap stunts; that we’re strategic communicators, not fluffy fly-by-nights; that our impact changes opinions and behaviours, not just coverage junkies; that we are razor sharp digital analysts, passionate about creating stories that earn their way, and not just stuck in column inches.”

4. We must shout about what we do

Rebecca Peel, digital PR consultant at marketing agency Hallam, says: “Everybody has a different opinion of PR. If I ask anyone who isn't in the field to explain to me what I do, their answer tends to be way off, but does anyone have the same definition of PR? It's so varied, that it's hard to convey the mix of tasks that we do in a short summary. 

“Because of this, some companies can struggle to find the right talent for public relations jobs. So why not leverage PR to help convey what we do in PR? I see so many PR agencies that don't ever tweet, announce when they grow, enter awards or do any PR for their own agency. If more did this, more people would know the goings on and the great, fun work that goes on in PR. This can also benefit new business and potential clients who are considering you as their PR agency. If they see how well you promote your own brand, they'll have that trust from early on."

Kate Hunter, B2B director at agency Hotwire Global Communications, adds: “If PR wants to get away from misconceived notions as a 'dark art' or 'spin', the industry should do more to communicate the benefits it brings and the important role it plays in a democratic society.”

5. We must all get involved

Gaby White, senior account executive at agency Carrington Communications, says: “We all have a job to do in changing misperceptions.

Take every opportunity to network and discuss PR with business people. Speak at non-PR focused events, offer industry-focused articles to the media and blog more about what the sort of PR your agency does to widen your audience. It’s what we’d advise to our clients, so surely we should take our own advice?

“By offering up our insight on PR we can dispel and debunk the myths surrounding our profession. This gives us the chance to make it clear that PR is all about building reputation and trust, and measuring the impact of our campaigns using the latest AMEC framework, so we can highlight the value that great PR can bring to business.

“We care about the reputations of our clients – and now’s the time to care about our own.”

6. We must use a charismatic spokesperson

Nigel Sarbutts, founder of PR resource The PR Cavalry, says: “If we are to address the problem of PR’s image, do it with the support of the CIPR and the PRCA, but not necessarily by them, because they are ultimately interest groups and the media will always filter their contribution accordingly. One way round this is to follow the lead of science in creating a role for the Public Understanding of Science – currently Marcus Du Sautoy.

“This role requires a charismatic communicator, able to offer a view of how and why organisations communicate in the way they do, but from a slight distance from practitioners and able to criticise poor practice as well as champion the good. An industry worth a few billion ought to be able to find a way to support someone in that role.”

So let’s all come together and shout about the great work PR does. Or pay someone brilliant to do it for us!

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