My hopes and fears for 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.

A year ago, when planning for 2020, it felt safe to predict that the year’s dominant issues would be the climate emergency and post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Who would have guessed that we’d instead have been gripped by a global pandemic and have faced uncomfortable conversations around Black Lives Matter?

2020 has delivered some contrasting messages for those in public relations. This level of risk and uncertainty helps make the case for a public relations approach. When it’s business-as-usual, the case is harder to make. Now, chief executives need help navigating uncertainty and managing risk; they have also recognised the primacy of internal comms at a time when remote working has become the norm.

Set against this are the effects of the recession. Discretionary spending is likely to be cut, affecting at first public relations consultancies and independent practitioners. Add to this the expected and politically-driven cuts to the country’s largest employer of comms professionals – the Government Communication Service – and the numbers employed in public relations will fall this year.

Professional bodies are also facing a downturn in membership income as well as the sudden loss of revenue from events and conferences. This has resulted in job losses and, in the case of the CIPR, the permanent decision to vacate its London office.

So this is a time when public relations advice is needed more than ever, yet it’s a time when opportunities will be limited for those looking for work or new contracts – and competition will be fierce.

So how can you rise to the challenge of these times? What grounds are there for optimism? Here are some pointers to the future.

Shift your focus from transactional to transformational communication

At junior levels, public relations work is often very transactional. There’s a place for securing media coverage, for gaining links and creating content, but none of these impresses in isolation. The challenge is to make the connection between these outputs and the impact on the organisation paying for public relations services. How have relationships with customers been improved? Are employees more engaged now than they were a year ago? What benefits has the organisation gained as a result?

Public relations outputs are easy to count – but there’s little value in this exercise. The impact of public relations is notoriously hard to attribute and measure – but that’s all the more reason for you to be a leader in this field. When money is tight, it’s vital to make the case for your budget or your contract.

To get started with these concepts, we have produced a free PR Place guide: How to measure the impact of communication

Time to learn

Pre-pandemic, employment was at record levels. When you’re busy and earning good money there’s little chance or incentive to step back and reflect. Now, many of us will have more time; and job seekers will face a much tighter labour market.

So how can you use the time to reflect on what you’ve learnt so far – and what you might need to learn to increase your chances of realising your ambitions?

It’s not a simple matter of ticking boxes and climbing the next rung of a mythical career ladder. You’re more complicated than that, and so is the economy. But a useful starting point would be to work on your weaknesses. You’re already good with words – so why not develop your affinity with numbers (data)? Strong on intuition – but what about your research skills? Expert at relationship building (outreach)? Then why not develop your skills in technical SEO? You’ve mastered public relations tactics – but can you talk the language of leaders?

Dr Heather Yaxley’s career columns provide a fund of models and frameworks for considering your own career progression.

And you can explore the range of professional and vocational courses available through PR Academy.

And whatever age and stage you’re at, you should seek out a mentor to help you gain an objective view of your progress and some impartial advice on the choices you face.

You can approach people individually, or you can apply through organisations that offer structured mentoring schemes for their members (such as CIPR, WIPR, BME PR Pros).

Time for a rethink

Few people beyond university students in their first semester welcome a discussion of ‘what is public relations?’ But I’d encourage you instead to always ask ‘what’s the purpose of public relations?’

The answer will surely force you to adopt a more integrated approach to communication rather than the neat silos we have created called internal communication, or public affairs, or analyst relations and so on.

The implications of this more integrated approach lead to some awkward questions about the way we do things around here. Is the name ‘public relations’ fit for purpose? And how many professional membership associations are we willing to support with our money?

Time for public relations to serve society

On that point, a profession should welcome the exchange of ideas between practitioners and researchers/academics, yet our not-quite profession seems reluctant to accept that research should inform theory that can, in turn, improve practice.

Yet, there are promising signs that point to practitioners moving in the same direction as academics. Industry association AMEC states in its latest iteration of the Barcelona Principles that ‘Outcomes and impact should be identified for stakeholders, society, and the organization.’ The PRCA Charter requires members to ‘Conduct their professional activities with proper regard for the public interest.’

Academics have been talking for years about public relations serving the public (and not just its paymasters). Now professional and membership associations seem to be pointing in the same direction.

It’s not easy. Who’s to judge what’s in the public interest? Who’s to adjudicate when one group’s interest is set against another’s? Who’s to say if our generation’s use of resources is leaving a depleted planet for future generations?

For the second half of the twentieth century, public relations served capitalism well and helped build the consumer society. In our century, can public relations help save capitalism and build a more sustainable future – with public consent?

It’s the challenge of a generation – and it should mean there’s plenty of meaningful work.

Those are all grounds for optimism. So what are my fears?

That in the face of this challenge and uncertainty, we’ll retreat to familiar territory rather than exploring unknown territory. That we’ll continue to celebrate media coverage even as the traditional media becomes more and more marginal to most lives. That we’ll comfort ourselves that we’re giving the boss or client what they’ve asked for rather than investigating what they need.

That we’ll win some battles but still end up losing the war.