PR practitioners should put up or shut up

Adding to the perennial complaints from PR practitioners about wanting independence from their marketing colleagues and a seat at the boardroom, are newer questions about who has responsibility for social media.  I’ve decided that I don’t care about such debates.

Short version for the : PR has too often squandered the opportunity to be taken seriously by focusing on the glitzy, fluffy stuff or spinning rather than gaining business competencies.  If we can’t get serious about the challenges facing our organisations, we should just shut up moaning about our lowly role!

One of my 4th year dissertation students at Bournemouth University is looking at the factors influencing PR’s impact at the higher echelons of an organisation.  Her literature review highlights plenty of evidence of lost opportunities over the years. 

PR practitioners have largely ignored the power of evaluation by not getting involved with organisations’ research functions.  These tend to focus on product, market or customer research – why isn’t it the publics research or reputation research department?  That would give an organisation a much wider understanding of the external context impacting its success.

When we consider reputation (which the CIPR definition puts at the centre stage of our role), can we really lay claim to its management?  When you look at ongoing crisis such as the , all the fancy communications about its commitments – “, etc, etc”, won’t protect the corporate reputation if management doesn’t prove it can reliably make toys fit for their purpose.

Then there’s issues and crisis management, which again has been said to be the key to the boardroom (C Suite) door.  I see all sorts of experts from other disciplines laying claim to this competency.  When it comes to risk management, for example, PR seems to stand back rather than championing behavioural change in response to emerging risks (or opportunities). 

Are we even qualified to counsel on risks affecting businesses?  Are we capable of spotting trends that could offer up business opportunities or act as early warnings of the need to change behaviour?  Will anyone listen if we are? Do you see the hand of PR behind risk assessment reports – or only if required to “spin” some rhetoric so the contents highlight the positive and minimise the negative?

Others have claimed the power of PR lies in relationship management?  picks up on this (along with an opportunity for PR to grasp the issue of measuring social media) at

But, beyond the ability to build relationships with journalists – and we can question whether such capabilities are widely evident today – are PR practitioners taken the opportunity to become experts in enabling their organisations to manage strategic, or operational, relationships?

Maybe the secret is in corporate social responsibility?  I used to believe it was, but then the PR luvvies focused on initiatives or “greenwash” rather than understanding the strategic elements of being a sustainable corporate citizen.  So cynicism about PR became cynicism about CSR (or vice versa).

I notice that has appointed a corporate social responsibility manager – his background is in quality and environmental certification, not public relations.  This area of management may also be increasingly taken up by those with the credibility of understanding the business and ensuring organisations comply with their responsibilities.  Shouldn’t PR be able to do that, and have wider vision for businesses too?

I know that in some of these areas, many PR practitioners have proven capable and gained the respect of their senior colleagues.  But this seems to be on an individual basis, rather than for the profession of PR as a whole.

I fear that too often though, the wider PR world has let such strategic opportunities go by in preference for focusing on the glitzy end of publicity and media relations.  We’re seen more often as emergency fixers or party organisers than serious management material.

When we complain about being lumped in with marketing – maybe we’ve only ourselves to blame.  Do we deserve to be considered the function responsible for social media – or doesn’t current evidence indicate that the spinners have ensured PR’s bad side has got in the way of credibility there too?

If we can’t take advantage of the business management opportunities that cry out for our expert hands, then maybe we should shut up moaning about the lowly plight of public relations.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

7 thoughts on “PR practitioners should put up or shut up”

  1. Hi Heather,

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. For a few years, I was a “PR person” in a major financial institution in Canada, followed by a few more years as a “communication guru” to other financials and large corporate clients. Now, I am a “management consultant” to multinationals, focused most often on integrating issues, risk and crisis leadership capacities.

    What I do for these clients hasn’t really changed much. But I have pointedly distanced myself from association with the “PR” industry, because it is less and less associated with the type of value that my associates and I provide.

    This disappoints me somewhat, because when I look around an organization’s head office, I typically find very few people who are better placed to become key strategic contributors than its PR people. Yet, almost never, do these people demonstrate an awareness of this opportunity — nor, frankly, even a cogent understanding of the power they wield. Most PR people, and I generalize here on purpose, view their job as one of “building relationships” or “communicating key messages” to “key publics” or “audiences”. And, many of them are very good at this often highly specialized and arcane tactical function. But it is a tactical function.

    Only the PR people who view communication as “the means by which people are influenced” can ever hope to reach the strategic level. Communication and PR is a means to an end. The end is not the transportation of information from one brain to others. The end is the shaping and influencing of people’s perceptions and, ultimately, their behaviour. By influencing the behaviour of people — people who are customers, people who are employees, people who are investors, people who are suppliers, bankers, regulators, neighbours, competitors, etc. — communication becomes a critically essential strategic lever.

    Practitioners — whether they consider themselves PR people, marketing people, communication people, management consultants or general managers — can become essential strategic contributors to their organizations by taking a broad, business focused perspective. The first step is to understand the core mission of an organization and its over-arching strategy to achieve this mission, and by deciphering what role each specific person or group of people (“publics” to the PR practitioner, “stakeholders” to consultants) must contribute in order for that strategy to succeed. Communication is ultimately the core lever that corporations can use to influence the behaviour of these stakeholders. And communicators hold the keys to the communication tactics.

    Too few communicators, however, see beyond the “key message” to think about “what do we want people to do — and how can we motivate them, in a sustainable way, to do that?” That’s the key strategic value that communicators can make to an organization. Until they recognize it, we “management consultants” and “strategy gurus” will happily continue to eat their lunch at the strategy table while they worry about how big the margins should be on the company newsletter.

  2. Thanks Mark – your post supports my thoughts well. One other part of strategic counsel for me is that the purpose of communications is multi-directional. So as well as aiming to influence publics/stakeholders, our role is to help organisations to listen and adapt, where appropriate. This will not only assist in achieving current known strategic objectives, but anticipate opportunities and avoid potential problems.

  3. You’re absolutely right Heather.
    The greatest value my “communication team” ever delivered to our organisation (or clients as a consultant) was when we swam upstream.

    There were many times when we could see product design, policy development or strategic planning that was going against the grain — not moving in a direction that stakeholders valued and which, ultimately, would devalue the company, the brand and the products and lead to an inability to achieve the mission. As good strategic partners, we would then advocate internally to change the product, change the price, change the plan. Because we were always well briefed and fact-based, we almost always won our point.

    If, for example, you’ve been asked to help communicate the launch of a blue, $300 tennis shoe and you know (because you are well-connected with the market) that the market segment you’re targetting hates blue, loves red and could never afford to spend more than $100 for a pair of sneakers, what do you do? Do you develop an over-the-top, kick ass campaign to pitch the shoes anyway? If you’re a brilliant tactician, yes.

    But, if you’re a strategic partner, you go back to the product guys with your research and say “Wait a minute! Is it possible to make these shoes red and sell them for $99?” If not, how “reddish” can they be and how can you package them with bonuses and added-value to bring the perceived cost down closer to the desirable price point. If neither can be done, then you begin to manage internal expectations of sales results.

    The earlier you are involved in the process, the easier it is to make changes. The more you bring fact-based, strategic value to the table, the more often you’ll be involved much earlier in the process!

  4. Hi Heather

    Great post on a topic that consumed most of my time during my final year at university and one that continues to interest me. PR’s reluctance to engage in strategic activity such as risk assessment, evaluation and crisis management are all factors which impact upon PR’s strategic contribution within organisations. I certainly found this is to be true in my research.

    After some reflection, however, I now feel that it is ultimately down to individuals and their motivations for pursuing a career in public relations. I am sure that PR will always attract people who enjoy the showbiz side of media relations. This is absolutely fine but I’m not sure that these people can then complain because they do not have a seat on the board of management.

    I recently read a profile of Claire Mason – Founder of Man Bites Dog – in PR Week (2 November 2007). When asked what characteristics Mason looks for in new recruits, she said “we want people who are simply too creative to be lawyers or management consultants.” That really struck home with me. That’s why I decided to study publication relations four years ago and is why I work in public relations today.

  5. Stuart – nice to hear from you. I actually taught Claire Mason on the CIPR Diploma course some years ago – and also thought her point was valid. What I liked was the implication that PR should appeal to people who had the choice of whether to be a lawyer, management consultant or a PR consultant.

    There are the opportunities for individuals, like yourself, who can see the advantages of pursuing the strategic path. What is important is that you will draw on exactly the same skills in terms of logic, problem solving, plus creativity, to provide wise counsel.

    Does it matter that others prefer entirely the “fluffy bunny” side? May be for their individual career path it doesn’t but it must make life harder for those with brains as well as creativity. Indeed, is creativity without brains worth anything?

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