I’ve just finished marking assignments from first year Uni students on the topic of whether PR is different from propaganda. And, as Vicky Pollard might say, well yeah, but, no but…
And that’s the point. PR can be considered as similar or even the same as propaganda – or it can be distinguished on the basis of purpose, approach, ethics, willingness to enter into dialogue, etc etc.
Yesterday in our seminars, we looked at the relationship between PR and marketing – and drew on the work of Jim Hutton, considering the areas of distinction and overlap. I like Hutton’s work including his criticisms of PR (Public Relations Review, 1999, 25(2):199-214):
By not developing a widely accepted definition and a central organizing principle or paradigm, the field of public relations has left itself vulnerable (1) to other fields that are making inroads into public relations’ traditional domain, and (2) to critics who are filling in their own definitions of public relations
Or his view expressed in “Defining the Relationship Between Public Relations and Marketing: Public Relations’ Most Important Challenge”, Chapter 14: page 205-214 in Robert L Heath, Editor: Handbook of Public Relations, 2001, Sage Publications:
The relationship between public relations and marketing is increasingly being defined by the marketing side. The reasons, however, have less to do with marketing imperialism than with (a) marketing’s natural progression toward relationships and noncustomer publics and (b) the void that public relations has created, inviting marketing and other fields to assume responsibility for traditional public relations functions.
It is common in education and academia to reflect on the relationship between PR and similar concepts – from conceptual, practical and linguistic perspectives.
Today, I ran a workshop for PR practitioners, focusing on online communications – and the debate became heated on the issue of whether this was really the domain of marketing rather than public relations. One argument was that PR should focus only on mediated communications (ie through a third party) and that if practitioners do not focus on such influencers, then they will have no future.
The counter viewpoint is that if PR only has expertise in communicating through others, then its future is doomed in a world where social media is all about engaging directly with publics – who may or may not be customers.
Tomorrow, I have a chance to explore the practitioner-academic perspective further as a class of the CIPR Diploma will look at PR as a management function – which is involved in understanding its strategic role and function. That is arguably much wider than simply being responsible for third party communications.
At the heart of the debate is the question of what PR involves – and why it is so difficult to define. Do we really need to “own” a particular domain? Does it really matter if CEOs recognise the independent counsel that strategic PR people are able to offer? Are our tactical skills what we should primarily be offering?
Should we leave social media to our colleagues in marketing? Is the reluctance of so many in PR to get engaged in this area a symptom of our decline?
Or maybe we just need some new terms that overcome the arguments over who does what and enable use to go beyond, yes, but no but.