PR Sucks and Other Fallacies.

“…PR people are ruining social media…”

“…P.R. people drive me crazy…”

“…PR sucks…”

Okay, that last one is more of a paraphrase than a quote, but you get the point. PR has taken a bit of a lashing recently.

Beyond being tired, cliche and trite, the “PR Sucks” meme is an informal fallacy – a straw man argument. The assertion of  most of these pieces is that because much of PR (particularly agency work and especially over the last 20 years) has been focused on earned media (media relations), that PR people are not suited/incapable/really bad at social media strategy and implementation. That media relations models don’t work in the social world, so clearly we’re ill-suited.

But media relations of course is only one specialized function – this argument reveals more about the respective writers’ (lack of) experience or limited view of PR and its role in management than it does about the nature of the public relations profession.

The “PR Sucks” argument doesn’t get at the actual discussion we should be having. I would love to see the discussion focused on creating understanding what PR is and what it is not. Limiting public relations to any singular function – whether it’s media relations or event planning or speechwriting is not productive. The authors of such posts are being incendiary on purpose, of course. “If we flame them, they will come and comment and link back! yay!”

But in the process, the broad brush with which they paint is not flattering to them or to those they caricature. And disclaimers like, “some of my best friends are PR people…” doesn’t help.

Defining public relations is complicated to say the least. The nuance and context within which a public relations professional works is hard to pin down and even the scholars don’t agree. However, since this is my blog, I’ll offer that the best definitions of PR have three things in common:

  • The importance of research
  • The primacy of relationships
  • The central requirement of listening and responding

One of my favorite definitions is from Rex Harlow:

Public relations is the distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication as its principal tools.

Another from Carl Botan:

Using communication to adapt relationships between organizations and their publics.

Finally, from the Encyclopedia of PR (which I didn’t know existed), Robert Heath offers:

Public Relations is a set of management, supervisory, and technical functions that foster an organization’s ability to strategically listen to, appreciate, and respond to those persons whose mutually beneficial relationships with the organization are necessary if it is to achieve its missions and values.

“Beneficial” relationships are not necessarily positive or the relationships that you enjoy building and maintaining. In fact, stakeholders may be the readers and viewers of media outlets, but they may also be employees, vendors, investors, neighbors, activists, government agencies, etc. Our focus in PR is not exclusively on the customer.

Creating a shared space for dialogue and feedback has been part of our job all along. Those “shared spaces” have taken real world shapes in the form of town halls, open houses, public comment opportunities, trade shows, desk-side briefings, CEO tours, and so on. But the online equivalents are a natural fit.

The problem, it seems, is the lack of understanding and “world view” of communications management by the PR Sucks crowd. Oh, and there are plenty of PR people who also lack understanding and “world view.” They’re the spammers, the bad pitchers, the flacks, the “smile and dial” publicists. But they are also not the norm.  Nor are they public relations professionals.

I lectured this week on the history of PR and I’m always invigorated by Arthur Page’s position on the role of public relations. Every time I get to this part of the lecture, I’m struck by how clearly his six principles often resonate with me and the work that I do as a public relations practitioner.

  • Tell the truth: Let the public know what’s happening and provide an accurate picture of your organization’s character, ideals, and practices.
  • Prove it with Action: Public perception of an organization is based on 90% doing and 10% telling.
  • Listen: Understand what the organization’s publics want and need. Keep top decision makers and other employees informed about company products, policies and practices.
  • Manage for Tomorrow: Anticipate opportunities and challenges, eliminate practices that create difficulties. Generate goodwill.
  • Conduct PR as if the whole company depends on it: No strategy should be implemented without considering its impact on the public.
  • Remain Calm, Patient and Good-Humored: Lay the groundwork for PR miracles with consistent, calm and reasoned action to information and contacts. Cool heads communicate best. (my favorite)

I would love to hear from you. What do you think?

photo by Richard Sunderland

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  • Michelle Honald

    Kelli,

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I was getting ready to write a similar post after reading yet another “PR people are ruining social media” post yesterday. I agree that the biggest problem is a misunderstanding, often by those outside of PR but also by some within the profession, about what function PR actually serves in an organization.

    PR is actually a logical place for social media to “live” within an organization. PR in its evolution has gone far beyond earned media and has become a management function. It’s purpose is to set the communication tone of the organization based on its stated values and mission. PR uniquely looks both internally at publics as well as externally, hence the reason PR professionals are called boundary spanners–one of the few in the organization who oversees the big picture of communicating with its many publics. I think this is perhaps why some are changing to the term strategic communication because it implies a broader approach.

    Marketers would have us all believe that they are the true overseers of PR, advertising and of course social media, but the problem with that is that marketers are focused on products and services and promotion–they spend little time thinking about the many publics that are important to an organization who may not be customers. PR looks at ALL of the publics, builds and maintains on-going relationships and monitors the environment for changes in those relationships.

    Though at one time PR communication was primarily one-sided, over the last oh I don’t know century or so, PR has emphasized two-way dialogic communication. In other words, listening to its publics, accepting feedback, creating a dialogue that is a win-win for the organization and the public. Hmmm, sounds very similar to social media and the need for personal conversations.

    Finally another critique leveled at PR professionals is that we can’t “do” social media because we understand nothing about measurement and ROI, and I’ve heard we also don’t know anything about analytics. This probably came as quite a shock to you Kelli since you maintain not only your own social media sites, but sites for many clients and are quite adept at using web analytics. As far as PR professionals not knowing how to or needing to evaluate and measure, again, about fifty or more years ago, this became quite an important responsibility for those who wanted to maintain their jobs. Often PR cannot be measured exactly as one would measure advertising, but that’s OK. The great thing about PR is that not only can we measure what we helped the organization earn, but we can also measure what we helped the organization save, through planning and smart implementation.

    For those who think that social media should be under the PR umbrella, they bring up the need to know technology, analytics, inbound marketing, etc. Just as marketing departments for years have housed (incorrectly I believe) PR and advertising; PR is capable of housing social media even if other departments do some of the work. Again we are focusing on PR’s management function and its oversite of the communications work of an organization.

    Does everyone have to agree with us that PR is a logical home for social media? Of course not. However, before anyone writes another post bashing PR’s role, I wish they would actually read up on the current state of PR–or even take one of our classes! 🙂 The reality is that social media is still, in many ways, the wild west and everyone wants their stake. Without proper preparation, anyone whether they are marketers, PR, online or social media people can be more of a hindrance to profession if they are not up to date on trends, definitions, evaluation, etc.

    I think this would be a much better, and more interesting debate, if we could debate with people who truly understand PR and its role in 21st century organizations.

  • http://gonzopublicrelations.blogspot.com/ John C. Mitchell, APR

    Great blog post, Kelli. For right now, I will just address the first three lines.

    Fallacy: PR people are ruining social media.
    Truth: PR people are leading the way in developing effective and responsible strategic communications using social media.

    Fallacy: PR people drive me crazy.
    Truth: I’ve never heard a reporter tell me that in 30 years of working with the media.

    Fallacy: PR sucks.
    Truth: They could have said “PR blows” and it would have made just as much sense. 🙂

  • Lisa Forster

    Kelli,

    Excellent post. I’ve found the anti-PR folks tend to have a very limited understanding of public relations. In a keynote speech, Rosanna Fisk (PRSA CEO), addressed this issue and others. She specifically mentioned an anti-PR rant by a NYT blogger and the monumental effort by professionals to educate him about public relations in the digital age.

    Fisk told conference attendees:

    “Let me sum up what the hundreds of comments boiled down to:
    It’s no longer about you. It’s about them. It’s about what others want, desire and need from your business. And ranting and raving about how a PR firm that you hired doesn’t understand what it is that YOU want, but is trying to help you understand what THEY want, isn’t going to get YOU anywhere.

    So what initially looked like another mass attack on the value of public relations, turned into a vast crowdsourced initiative of how public relations has stepped up to meet businesses modern communications challenges.”

    http://media.prsa.org/article_display.cfm?article_id=2030

  • http://north.com Dave Allen

    Kelli,

    I understand where you’re going with your post but the three references above from Rex Harlow, Carl Botan and the Encyclopedia of PR (wow!) all point to the problem not the solution – each one still points to the long, lost glory days of PR “owning the message” “controlling the message” etc. None of that is possible across the social web. Brands and companies no longer control the message online. By all means good PR requires monitoring the social media jungle but this quote from Harlow simply underlines the longing he has for the old days – “defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest.”

    Dave Allen

  • Kelli Matthews

    Dave,

    I disagree. None of these definitions are about “owning” or “controlling” the message. The definitions are each about using solid research, behaving ethically and focusing on building and maintaining relationships.

    “Management” has yet to understand that in many organizations (even small ones). As PR counsel, it’s often my job to remind management that they exist by permission of the public and it’s their responsibility to act in the public interest. That means listening to the public, building and maintaining relationships (which are, by definition, two-way).

    And I strongly disagree that PR’s role is only to monitor. All that stuff about research, behaving ethically and building relationships … those core principles can ensure that social media initiatives incorporate all stakeholders. Campaigns take buy-in and support, energy and focus from across the organization. And social media cannot be done in a vacuum. When social is done well, it’s *just* not a campaign, but a long term communication strategy.

    In fairness, Rex (and others) are all scholars from the first half of the 20th century, so the specifics of the language may feel a little dated… but I stand on the assertion – research, ethics and relationships are part of the DNA of PR and should be part of the DNA of social.

    Thanks for the comment! You always have good food for thought and I love that!

    Kelli

  • http://www.nereus-worldwide.com Natalie

    Hi Kelli,

    We at Nereus were actually just talking about the definition of PR the other day too:

    http://blog.nereus-worldwide.com/2011/04/05/remembering-1982-and-why/

    I really like the Rex Harlow definition that you included:

    “Public relations is the distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics….”

    Thanks for this post!

  • http://gonzopublicrelations.blogspot.com/ John C. Mitchell, APR

    Some good definitions of the art and science of public relations here.

    I’ve always liked this definition, primarily because of its simplicity: “PR is the strategic effort to influence opinion through good character and responsible performance, based upon mutually-satisfactory two-way communication.”

    In other words, doing a good job and letting people know about it, and conducting an organized and systematic approach to win friends and influence people for the benefit of an organization, company or client.

  • Caitlin

    Kelli,

    I thought Author Page’s six principles were very interesting. Being a PR major myself knowing exactly what public relations is, is vital. Reading that really helped me to see another idea. I completely agree, it seems when I tell people PR is my major they often chuckle to themselves and ask what I will actually do with that. At the end of the day I often think most people truly don’t understand what public relations is and what those who are in PR do. I thought this post was very stimulating.

  • http://prpathways.wordpress.com/ Kayla Albrecht

    Kelli,

    Of the definitions you posted, I too favor the definition by Rex Harlow. Our value of ethical communication isn’t presented enough when defining public relations, preserving the notion of PR as spin. I constantly find myself, a public relations student and aspiring practitioner, defending the field and giving explanation of what it even is.

    The portions of the definition you decided to bold are key its noteworthiness because of the language it highlights. By using words like “responsibility” and “cooperation” and “ethical,” practitioners can begin to gain the trust of their publics, rather than create suspicion.

    My question is: how do you bring others to accept and trust a definition of public relations when it is created by a professional in the field? Is it impossible to avoid suspicion of bias?

    I really enjoyed this post and look forward to learning more!

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  • Thao Bui

    I agree with your post. I cannot keep track of how many angry read that I have run into on the Internet about PR and how it sucks. Sometimes, it sparks an angry fire in me because I am a student with a double major in advertising and public relations, of which people always like to criticize. However, it is true that the general public usually lacks of the understanding about PR world. Therefore, I always like to go with Arthur Page’s principles whenever my family or friend asks me about what I am studying.