Reflecting on six editions of The Public Relations Handbook
About the author
Alison Theaker is editor of The Public Relations Handbook. The sixth edition was published last month.
In 1990, Peter Gummer, Chairman of Shandwick plc (now Lord Chadlington), stated ‘I believe that PR will increasingly be seen for what it really is – an indispensable tool of management’. In this environment of confidence and expectation of an improving reputation for public relations, in 1991 the first edition of The Public Relations Handbook appeared. In 2020, in a context of deliberate miscommunication, fake news and lies commonplace in public life, the sixth edition of the same text has been published.
When Richard Bailey asked me to reflect on what has changed over the life of the book, it’s disappointing to find that in some areas, not much has improved from two decades ago.
When I researched the glass ceiling in PR in 1995, it was clear that the industry was adopting an ostrich like approach to the question of why there were so many women in the profession yet so few in the boardroom. The then IPR Chief Executive, John Lavelle, told me that trying to compare the salaries of men and women would be like comparing “apples and pears”.
I was asked to oppose the motion, “Increasing feminisation is devaluing the reputation of PR”, at a debate at a national IPR conference, held on a poorly attended Sunday morning where most participants were suffering hangovers from the party the night before, an indication of how seriously the Institute took the issue then. There continues to be a disparity in pay between men and women, with the CIPR (2019) reporting the average salary for men was £58,100 and that for women £45,700.
The PRCA (Golob 2018) found an increase in the pay gap of 21% despite an increase in women managing directors. Women continue to make up the majority (61%) of the profession, compared with the UK workforce as a whole (46%). The industry continues to be overwhelmingly white (90%) (Lee and Aherne 2017). There continues to be a focus on working long hours, with practitoners working at least 10 hours over their contracted hours each week (Golob, 2018). The Index (2019) reported that heavy workload, unrealistic deadlines, unsociable hours were the top causes of stress.
Some things are obviously different. For the first edition’s chapter on media relations, I surveyed journalists about how they liked to receive information – by post, email or fax (remember that?).
Only those journalists who worked in IT were keen on email. For my first job as a press officer in the early 1980s I had to wrestle with multiple photocopies, envelope labels and persuading the postroom that the releases really did need to go out that day. In Philip Young’s latest chapter he includes a case study where coverage in broadcast, printed and specialist media is supplemented by social media and blogs. Alongside this, Heather Yaxley’s latest coverage of using new technology effectively deals with the need for a strategic approach and whether the use of AI will make some PR activities redundant.
In 2003, Gable set out ‘five major PR issues for the next decade’. These were: the need to improve strategic planning; encroachment on public relations services by other consultants; credibility; defining public relations; evaluation and measuring long-term effectiveness; finding enough properly qualified staff. In the same year, Woodall and Smith suggested future issues were the use of new technology; evaluation and demonstrating productivity in communications.
For the fifth edition in 2016, I reveiewed the topics which I had written about in the “Future Challenges” chapter since 1991. A concern with the reputation of PR was a constant throughout, as was both a fear and an awareness of how new technology would change practice. Improving the quality of entrants to the profession and professional competence were other recurrent issues.
The queston of convergence is still relevant. Susan Kinnear (2020) suggests, “Practitioners entering the industry are even less able than before to differentiate between PR, marketing and advertising,” making professionalism harder to achieve. In terms of evaluation, Parker (2020) reported that “content chaos is the biggest worry for communications leaders” and found that there was a lack of measurement of how content was being received.
In the second edition in 2004, I suggested that the phrase ‘it’s only a PR exercise’ might even disappear from common usage. In 2007 however, George Pitcher proposed the motion that ‘public relations has a duty to tell the truth’ and lost, opposed by Max Clifford, who won.
PR Week at the time even suggested that the fact that PR practitoners admitted they lied was a sign of maturity of the profession. Lying now seems to be a common tactic in public life. Robson (2019:29) found that statements were more likely to be believed if they were repeated often enough. The campaigns before the Brexit referendum result have been shown to have used factually inaccurate statements and misinformation, but repetition made them more believeable.
The abuse of digitial communications, intrusive marketing and fake news have undermined trust. Whilst the CIPR introduced a compulsory ethics module in their continuous professional development scheme, it seems that PR is still is still seen as a tactical function designed to gloss over unpleasant truths rather than a profession with an ethical approach and is “at the leading edge of misinformation” (Liam Fitzpatrick 2020).
So, same, same but different. I refer to this in recent editions as “glacial shift”. It’s not that there aren’t excellent practitoners out there passionately concerned with delivering excellent strategic communications counsel and ethical and targetted campaigns to achieve tightly crafted objectives.
The range of contributors to the Handbook has evolved over the editions to include practitioners and academics at the forefront of reflective practice and cutting edge research. But the opportunities offered by developments in new technology are still being under-used, evaluation is still not universal, working culture is not people-friendly, gender inequality and limited diversity have still not been addressed. Surely it’s time for the profession to adopt its own advice to clients to be thought leaders and at the forefront of change?
CIPR (2019)State of the Profession https://cipr.co.uk/CIPR/Our_work/Policy/CIPR_State_of_the_Profession_2019_20.aspx
Fitzpatrick (2020) email correspondence
Gable, T. (2003) ‘Five major PR issues for the next decade’, Strategist, Spring, pp. 18–21
Golob, B (2018) PRCA launches the PR and Communications Census http://www.communicatemagazine.com/news/2019/prcas-pr-and-communications-census-indicates-an-industry-in-transition accessed 24 July 2019
Kinnear, S (2020) email correspondence
Lee, A and Aherne, B (2017) The State You’re In, Influence, Q2 pp 10-11, CIPR
Parker, D (2020) Content chaos is the biggest worry for comms leaders heading into 2020. 14 January https://www.prmoment.com/pr-research/content-chaos-is-the-biggest-worry-for-comms-leaders-heading-into-2020 accessed 14 January 2020
Pitcher, G. (2007) ‘Liar, liar, practitioners under fire’, Profile, May/June, p. 12
Robson, D (2019) Truthiness, Influence, CIPR, Q3 pp 29-31
The Index,(2019) The Stress Test, Influence Q2, CIPR pp 10-11
Woodall, K. and Smith, S. (2003) ‘What will the future hold?’, Communication World, February–March, pp. 18–21