Blended public relations

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Image by silviarita from Pixabay
Image by silviarita from Pixabay

I taught an introductory class to first year undergraduates last autumn. These, please note, are people born since the millennium, and coached through school to expect prescribed answers to predictable questions.

I can do conventional teaching, but my heart isn’t in it. Textbook learning is necessary,  but it’s not a sufficient preparation for a century in which we face convergence of once-distinct disciplines and ever-increasing disruption from automation and artificial intelligence.

It may be reassuring to teach Grunig and Hunt’s Four Models of public relations (from the ‘press agentry/publicity’ model through to the idealised ‘two-way symmetric’ model). It’s a fixture in the academic literature, but we can’t present this uncritically nor should we give it undue prominence. Nor can we pretend that the world is unchanged from how it was in 1984 (that book’s publication date).

How to incorporate new models and new thinking? How to encourage students to recognise that questions do not always have definitive answers?

I’m reassured to this extent. My class sat an exam in January. They turned up. They stayed the full two hours. They scribbled answers by hand with no reference to notes or textbooks.

Their answers were interesting. The highlight for me was their response to an optional question. This asked them to respond to the taunts of a family member who, on hearing they’re studying public relations, asked why they chose to study propaganda?

We had the full range of responses. Some adopted the Grunig and Hunt approach which sought to distance professional public relations from propaganda. Others took the approach broadly endorsed by scholars from Johanna Fawkes to Kevin Moloney and Conor McGrath (public relations is weak propaganda) to Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy (both are essentially amoral). There’s no ‘right’ answer, which is why it’s such a good question!

So how to teach the true messiness of twenty-first century public relations to a class of beginners entitled to expect simple answers to straightforward questions such as:

  • What’s the difference between PR and advertising?
  • Is public relations the same thing as corporate communication?

To unpick these questions, here’s the class I wish I’d given. It’s a cookery class of sorts. It argues that public relations is rarely the only ingredient in the smoothie recipe. It needs to be mixed with other ingredients to reveal its true taste and health-giving benefits. It’s all about the blend.

(I sounded out my postgraduate class on these recipes to see if they could add to or improve on them, but their best suggestion was to ‘add gin’. Wouldn’t that make them cocktails?)

So let’s stick with my six recipes for starters.

Creativity smoothie: Add the traditional skill of the publicist (earned media) to content creation and advertising (paid media) along with a healthy dose of psychology and understanding of human and digital networks (what will make this idea go viral?) – and you’ll never be short of work. 

Corporate advisory smoothie: Add public relations and public affairs expertise to management consultancy and legal to reveal the full power of reputational risk management and oversight of the full range of ESG (environmental, social and governance) work.

Public affairs smoothie: This is where you blend your passion for politics with knowledge of the workings of government and the civil service together with insight into salient issues in the public domain.

Digital marketing smoothie (also known as content marketing smoothie): Mix PR’s traditional skills in relationship building with an equal mix of journalistic expertise (multimedia content creation) and knowledge of data and SEO to reveal the ideal all-rounder.

Internal communication smoothie: It’s much more than comms! It involves what academics call organisational behaviour (OB) and works alongside the human resources (HR) and IT functions. It’s also an advisory and advocacy function that champions the primacy of employees within stakeholder relationship management and recognises the inevitable overlaps between internal and external. Knowledge of the employee brand is also essential.

Professional smoothie: Anyone can set themselves up as a public relations practitioner. So what distinguishes the professionals from the crowd? Is it membership of a professional body? Is it adherence to a code of ethics? Is it having a degree or a professional qualification? Is it demonstrably keeping up to date through continuous professional development (CPD)? Yes, but it has to be more than a tick-box exercise. In Communication Excellence, the researchers behind the European Communication Monitor set out three high-level characteristics of excellent practitioners: they should be sagacious (knowledgeable, reflective and shrewd); they should be linked (to people, to media and to networks); they should be solid (strong, sensitive and savvy).