I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner;
I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm’s Cortina.
You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know,
I’m partly a liaison man, and partly P.R.O.
Those marvellous lines from Betjeman stem from a time when PR was a more simple profession. Then it was loosely about having a relationship with the public and being a representative whose role was to both promote and to smooth things over. However, today, it seems, there is a growing unease at the inability to define the “profession”. Every other discipline seems able to do what they say on the tin so why can’t PR. Here’s a few thoughts.
Firstly, it is, of course, difficult to actually pin PR down. There are no professional barriers to entry, no entry qualifications, practioners come a variety of backgrounds, there’s no agreed measurement criteria for success or failure, and activities vary from celebrity puffing and product placement to strategic counsel. Secondly, the discipline has spawned countless specialisms from media relations to internal communications to public affairs and social media. Each often speaks its own language and has distinct networks. Thirdly, each of the component parts is under attack from other disciplines. Social media, for instance, is under threat from its higher paid and better resourced cousins in advertising and marketing. Internal communications morphs into human relations who come armed with the support of business schools and the global management consultancies.
But it is not just the nebulous foundations upon which PR is based that have led to this crisis of identity. Two enormous changes have taken place that threaten the fundamentals. The first is, of course, digital communications. Not only has content been effectively democratised but also the tools of our trade have opened up to everyone (for instance, anyone with a laptop and energy can run a pretty effective campaign against, say, local development proposals.) Secondly, the decline in trust means that people no longer believe what they hear simply because it comes from someone in a position of “authority”. Taken together these two societal disruptions have changed the game for PR. They mark the end of communications as a transactional, top-down, command and control function (see my blogs passim), although it is an end that few in PR have reacted to.
So what to do? Some see the answer as positioning PR in the arena of reputation management; others like the idea of PR becoming the corporate conscience. For some an increasing use of (robust) data could solve the problem. I personally have doubts about many of these avenues. For me there can never be one-size-fits all definition of PR. In fact, PR’s very strength ought to be its adaptability and flexibility.
The world has changed. Businesses are struggling to make sense of relationships in the new digital marketplace. Indeed, with out-sourcing and co-creation it is sometimes hard to know where a business starts and ends. And yet many people, especially in the PR world, are continuing to demand the type of professional demarcation of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker.
The old landscape of separate audiences and ring-fenced issues has gone. The role for PR is to help organisations be comfortable with ambiguity. We need to help our clients make sense of the changed environment and assist them in understanding the relevance of their audiences and their issues. We can play a part in helping them to navigate their way through change. And rather than being focused on channel-specific outputs we should consider the types of outcome and behaviour change that we’re seeking. And the type of person who will thrive in these puzzling and uncertain surroundings will still most likely be partly a liaison man and partly a P.R.O.