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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