Eleven things I think about public relations

I don’t claim to know all there is to know about public relations – or even a fraction of it.

Seven years into doing it as a job, I feel I’m only beginning to discover what it’s really about – or has come to be about – as I feel my way in the dark.

Some kind of enlightenment feels within reach and it’s getting lighter, yet darker, all the time. The more you learn, the less you know.

One thing I do know is that public relations is not what it was. It has changed and it is continuing to change.

Or perhaps it’s getting back to what it once was – that is, not media relations, not ‘pee-arr’, but the business of creating, developing, managing and nurturing relations (or relationships) with people.

Over the past year I have been grappling with the philosophical question of what public relations is for. It probably doesn’t bear deep, introspective thinking. That’s just naval-gazing. It’s pretty simple, after all. It’s just communication.  But indulge me. This is my blog.

From vague and airy notions, some essence of a definition has begun to crystalise in my mind. Better and more experienced practitioners than me have helped give it substance and validation along the way.

Last week, during a two-day CIPR course on measuring and evaluating PR, trainer Stuart Bruce dispensed some nuggets as asides and during coffee breaks.

On the question of what we call this thing we do, Stuart argued that we need to hold on to the name ‘public relations’ (not the tarnished and stigmatised ‘PR’) as the oldest and best definition of the craft.

It’s an argument Bruce nails (with a headline I wish I had nabbed before he did) in his blog review of Robert Phillips’ much-discussed Trust Me, PR is Dead:

“Real public relations is more important than ever. But we have a problem. Has the reputation of PR already sunk so low that it can’t be improved? If you answer yes the problem is what do you replace it with? Corporate communications doesn’t work as it makes communications the primary arbiter of reputation, when as Robert makes clear, it isn’t what you say or how you say it, but what you do that is the real arbiter of reputation.”

This notion of ‘real PR’ rather than ‘false PR’ evokes, in faithful style, the CIPR definition of public relations as:

“…about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.”

As Stuart told us, the ‘what you do’ bit is the part that all too often gets forgotten. This is one of the things I think about public relations – it’s about what you do, not just what you or others say.

Here are ten other things. It’s not a complete list, just ‘top of the head’ stuff. Some of these will be painfully obvious for hardened pros, most will sound naive, others wrong.  But it’s my list, and I’m sticking to it. At least until it changes again.

2. Public relations and customer services are the same thing. We need to think about the ‘customer experience’ (*digital jargon alarm*) in every interaction people have with our organisation/brand/campaign/idea.

3. Social media isn’t everything. But we need to get good (really good) at doing it – or die.

4. We need to think video first. We all need to do make more videos. Many will be bad. Some will cost money. They can take lots of time – but they don’t have to.

5. There is no excuse for not evaluating what you do.

6. Communication is everyone’s job – but organisations need comms professionals more than ever to help everyone in them communicate better.

7. We need to fight to be at the top table to advise before it’s too late to make a difference. But we also need to listen to our bosses, clients, customers and colleagues and learn.

8. Doing the right thing is the right thing to do. PR professionals need to discover their moral compass. Ethics are not something you pay lip service to – you need to mean it.

9. Don’t rely on the media – be the media. Understand content marketing. Have a rolling newsroom. Publish. Curate. Tell your story – and be as honest as you are engaging. Spin and lies get found out.

10. Sometimes, traditional is best. It might be boring to do a leaflet but sometimes a leaflet, not a schedule of tweets, is what you need.

11. The media still matter. We need the media to hold us to account. Do number 8 properly and you don’t need to fear the media – you respect them.


2 thoughts on “Eleven things I think about public relations”

  1. Excellent post Mike and I agree with everyone of your points. The “traditional is best” one is too often forgotten.

    One that I’d add is “integrate everything” which you imply, but perhaps needs to be more explicit. A great way to make social media work better is to make it an integral part of traditional channels such as leaflets. More than just a Facebook or Twitter logo, but offering an enhanced experience or more information. And vice versa.

    I’d also caveat the “fight to be at the top table” to make it clear that often it’s best to have direct access to the board and CEO rather than actually sitting on it. That’s because if PR is about “what you do” then you need to be able to offer counsel on the reputational implications of what the organisation does. You can often do this better if you’re not one of those making the decision. But, your view always has to be heard. It is the board’s or CEO’s decision how much they let reputation influence their decision, balanced against counsel from finance, HR, legal, operations etc.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Stuart, which is most valued. This was very much ‘in the moment’ stuff and I’ve already rethought and added to these points several times. More for future posts!

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