Review: #PRredefined

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.

#PRredefined by Andy Green and others.
#PRredefined by Andy Green and others.

#PRredefined is a new movement by prominent thinkers and doers to ensure that public relations is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. It starts (but does not end) with a publication, which is why we’re presenting this as a book review.

A new definition of PR may emerge, but that’s not the main purpose of #PRdefined. So what is it about?

We have a collection of essays by different contributors, sandwiched between some forewords by more thinkers and afterwords by others. In other words, it’s a conversation that the rest of us are encouraged to join.

Tim Traverse-Healy is one of those who introduces the project and summarises the intellectual challenge:

“The ability to manage two-way relationships is a myth. An organisation does not own the conversation around its products and services.”

Traverse-Healy and others argue that the theoretical framework that has dominated thinking about public relations for thirty years – symmetry and Excellence – was proposed in a more certain age with more structured organisational hierarchies. If it’s no longer fit for purpose, what can and should replace it? #PRredefined is attempting to provide answers.

Traverse-Healy has worked in public relations since 1947, but he’s not alone in taking a historical look at the current challenge.

Helio Fred Garcia also takes the long view.

So what I grapple with is this: what is the essence of PR? What do our clients most value? What description is as valid in an oral society and in the age of social networking? What definition applies equally to those who work with tree-based media (paper) and those who work with electron-based media? I believe the answer is also found in Bernays’ 1923 book:“The public relations counsel is the pleader to the public of a point of view. He acts in this capacity as a consultant both in interpreting the public to his client and in helping to interpret his client to the public. He helps to mold the action of his client as well as to mold public opinion.”

Garcia argues that a ‘new’ definition may involve the rediscovery of the original purpose of public relations.

Then to the meat in the middle of the sandwich. There is an essay on Excellence Theory by Stephen Waddington based on his Chartered Practitioner paper. There’s an essay on rethinking PR by Philip Sheldrake, based on his thinking in The Business of Influence and his chapters in Share This and Share This Too. There’s an essay from meme-master Andy Green, who wants to reclaim the concept of brand for public relations. There’s a chapter by Anne Gregory and Paul Willis introducing their new strategic model of PR from their new book, Strategic Public Relations Leadership. There’s a perspective from South Africa by Chris Skinner (or rather there should be, though I could not find it in my version of the ebook).

It’s an important project, and these are some of the most prominent thinkers in their field, so I wish it well. But it needs an editor (in my version the authors’ names and chapter titles appear in different places from their contributions, making it hard to navigate. The introduction only appears on page 55! But that’s easily fixed.

What may be harder to reconcile are the various egos and interests. There are some full-time academics involved, like Professor Anne Gregory and Paul Willis. Then there are the academic/practitioners like Traverse-Healy, Garcia and Jon White. Then there are the consultants who write (Green, Waddington, Sheldrake).

It makes for a lively dinner party conversation, but it doesn’t amount to a coherent manifesto.

Let’s take one example. Andy Green wants to rehabilitate the concept of ‘brand’ in place of the more familiar public relations concept of ‘reputation’. He’s probably alone in this among the contributors (though I note that both of Stephen Waddington’s co-authored books contain brand in the title). Green writes:

The public relations industry, and many of its academics, have marginalised the significance of ‘Brand’ in their thinking and doing. Instead, vague concepts of ‘reputation’ or ‘corporate reputation’ and ‘image’ are used. For example, the respected work by Jacquie L’Etang’s [sic] ‘Public Relations Concepts, Practice and Critique’ has no index reference to ‘brand’.

Green argues that: ‘[brand] is a better conceptual tool than the terms currently used by public relations academics such as ‘corporate reputation’ and ‘image’.

The traditional skill set of public relations – strength in the written word in explaining, creating conversations and in brand storytelling are suited to the task of Content Marketing. Content Marketing provides tremendous opportunities for public relations professionals. Any future definitions of public relations practice needs to embrace it. And fast!

It’s a good point, but one that takes me back to one of the forewords. How to describe an elephant based on its parts (the tusk, the tail or a leg)? So-called content marketing may indeed be a natural PR discipline, but it no more defines public relations than the trunk defines the elephant.

It’s a commendable project, but one that desperately needs an editor if it’s to achieve its objectives.