Public Relations does not relate to the public. Companies are deeply afraid of their markets.

This statement is the 26th theses in the Cluetrain Manifesto, published a decade ago and the subject of the celebratory cluetrainplus10 project, which involves 95 bloggers conversing on the anniversary: 28 April 2009.

The heart of this ground-breaking text is the idea of the Internet enabling human conversations and promoting a market of “fabulous stories” told by authentic voices.  That sounds like the natural home of PR to me – so why is this thesis the only one that references public relations, and even then, in critical terms?

Like many pioneers of the social development of online communications, one of the authors of Cluetrain Manifesto had poor experiences of PR as “hucksterism”; pitching journalists in the hunt for free editorial.  And, as a result of this perspective, he stated:

That’s how I discovered PR doesn’t work and that markets are conversations

My own experience of public relations is not one of command and control, and indeed, I always understood the role of the PR team to be about having conversations and building personal relationships.

Even if you believe PR is solely about press relations, the clue is in the name – which is a useful reminder that generating media coverage is a partnership and not a right.

I started teaching public relations around the same time that Cluetrain was published, which was when I first began to think about the other word – public.  It is evident to me that public relations must relate to the public – or publics to be accurate.

The term, public, has many interesting dimensions:

  • the community or wider public, as understood by “the public good”
  • open to scrutiny, that is the opposite to private
  • the consequence of discussion and feedback, evidenced in public opinion
  • a group of people with a common interest, such as the reading public

Within the PR literature, the term publics is also used specifically, notably by Grunig, who back in 1978, drew on the work of Dewey, Blumer and other early 20th century writers, to identify how publics organise around problems that affect them.

As such, it is imperative that an organisation communicates with not at people who can affect or who are affected by its operations.  This presents a clear societal context for public relations to ensure that organisations understand their responsibilities and how they need to engage with publics to achieve strategic aims.

That may be achieved by generating relevant media coverage – but that editorial needs to relate to the public.

Sadly, too often what we see of PR, ironically more so in this age of social networks, is a failure to relate to the public.  There is far too much hucksterism and pitching of pretty poor ideas that seek only to achieve coverage (online or offline) regardless of whether or not this is relevant to a public.

So does this prove that “companies are deeply afraid of their markets”?

David McKie and colleagues believe the PR field has not explicitly met the challenges presented by the 26th thesis.  Alex Hillman sums up the fear as companies being “petrified” by what others have to say about them.

Ged Carroll criticises the reluctance of PR professionals to engage with research and measurement.  Indeed, not engaging with the data, implies that PR practitioners are not interested in hearing what others say and that any efforts at influencing are predicated entirely on shouting at the other party.

Yes, a lot of PR folk seem stuck in the press agentry rut of spamming out one-sided messages and unfortunately, these practitioners only see social media as another “channel” open to corporate manipulation.

But this type of spinning is increasingly revealed as pointless and stuck on the spot instead of progressing the aims of organisations, through genuine relationships.

Over the last decade, the ideas of Cluetrain Manifesto and strategic public relations have begun to be proven in practice.  I’ve seen this in my own 10 years of teaching where ideas that students used to find idealised are now thought of as common sense.

It is only by public relations relating to the public that companies can move beyond being deeply afraid of their markets.  Instead of acting as a gate-keeper, PR must open the door and facilitate the human conversations and “fabulous stories” that it, above all other functions, is able to discuss in authentic voices.

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  1. charitygirl says:

    Perhaps the problem is that PRs put their clients or coworkers first and are often too afraid or unable to challenge a ‘bad’ story or idea

    In charityworld, PR is often seen as free advertising to push an event, a knee-jerk reaction to appease a bolshy fundraiser or a really easy thing that only takes a few minutes.

    In reality PRs should be the ‘outsiders’ in their org, thinking about the so what factor of every story and if it’s worth the time, immediately working on the angle, the target audience and how to appeal to them.

  2. That’s an interesting point – I’ve found with clients like that, the secret is to ask about what their aims are on a regular basis and develop a system by which we can look in advance at how PR can help achieve these – that begins to shift focus away from re-active to more pro-active work that normally delivers much better results.

  3. Danny Brown says:

    Perhaps what else is needed is the openness of those at the top of PR companies and agencies. Mnay are stuck in the same rut as they were when TCM came out. Business has moved on; people have moved on; but some of the top tier guys haven’t.

    Open up to ideas from juniors and interns; read the news (online and offline) to see what changes are taking place; and start to listen.

    Oh, and leave your ego at the door while you’re at it… 😉

  4. Thanks Danny – At the two extremes, I tend to find those at the top can be dreadful luddites and deny the relevance of any new media in PR (or think it is the role entirely of marketing), or they can be terribly over-enthusiastic having heard of Twitter etc and think their company must be involved with no strategy or attempt to separate out the competent advisers from the come-latelies. Indeed, they often turn to their traditional marketers/PRs and get them to do it – recipe for failure and turning over-enthusiasm into “this is all rubbish”.

  5. yes We also afraid 🙂

  6. Alex says:

    Interesting article. When there is a good, open relationship between client and PR agency then this is when the best results are achieved.

  7. Alex – I agree with you that a good relationship is key when using an external PR consultancy, although personally I favour PR as a strategic in-house function wherever possible as that way, apprecation of the wider scope and value of the discipline can be understood more widely throughout the organisation.

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