What’s the matter with public relations?

About the author

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


Golin has followed M&C Saatchi in reintroducing public relations to their brand. Meanwhile some journalists have berated ‘PR people’ for demanding backlinks from stories and for assuming to negotiate over editorial content.

Those were two industry talking points last week. They appear unconnected: one thread appears to assert the value of public relations, the other to discredit it. But I think they’re part of the same problem. Let me explain.

First, to the M&C Saatchi and Golin announcements.

In a PR Week opinion piece on 17 October, M&C Saatchi Public Relations global CEO Molly Aldridge wrote:

Relating to the public – through earning media impact and spreading word of relevant mouth – is in our blood. And that’s what we’re best at. It’s too important to be abbreviated or misappropriated. We, as a modern public relations company, feel so passionately about this need for clarity that we’ve changed our name to underline our point of view when it comes to who we are and what we do. We’re now M&C Saatchi Public Relations.

To spell it out, it’s public relations, not PR. And it’s valued and valuable.

Then to Golin. In a global news announcement on 1 November, the firm wrote:

In recent years, agencies across the globe, including Golin, have run away from the term public relations, in favor of other buzz words like integrated, digital and marketing. Progressive PR reinforces the importance of effective public relations for companies and brands, while also cementing the value of public relations for professionals who have dedicated their careers to it.

To spell it out: don’t shy away from public relations. Let’s proudly profess who we are and what we do!

And who could disagree? Surely not a site called PR Place. Surely not professional bodies like PRSA, CIPR and PRCA. Surely not a public relations lecturer.

Tyto’s Brendon Craigie broadly welcomed Golin’s move:

‘Make no mistake, this latest one-eighty isn’t an opportunistic marketing ploy. Instead, it represents what I expect to be a gradual unravelling of the shift away from PR as agencies seek to reclaim the badge they’ve been so careless to give away.’

Yet there has been a backlash from many others within the industry.

Mary Whenman politely called this out on Twitter as ‘navel gazing.

John Brown was less coy in his video blog, giving it the full sarcastic treatment:

‘The already extremely self-centred and insecure PR industry has been charging head first into column inches about why it’s now super-important to include PR or public relations in a new brand.’

I’m reminded of that neat turn of phrase in the CIPR’s definition of public relations – ‘the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.’

Note how actions come before words. Part of the scorn is directed towards the pursuit of news headlines through a PR firm announcing that it’s in public relations. It’s surely too self-evident to need stating.

So, actions before words: put your energy into doing public relations for clients, not blatantly doing public relations for your own firm (Mary Whenman’s ‘navel gazing’). And never forget that we should be judged on our actions: what are the results in terms of ‘what others say about you?’

This November is AMEC measurement month, so now is a good time to think about demonstrable proof of the results of public relations. How has your activity delivered quantifiable outcomes (as measured by behaviour change, not column inches)?

If we’re good at what we do, and what we do has resulted in positive outcomes, then what more public relations should we need for ourselves and our firms?

Age-old confusion

This mention of outcomes leads to the age-old confusion between outputs and outcomes. It’s the difference between means and ends.

If our objective is to reduce fatalities from drink driving in the run-up to Christmas through a communication campaign, we can’t measure our success by counting media mentions. That proves nothing. We have to measure the campaign against its objective: did it reduce fatalities? And we have to monitor the campaign as it moves through the three steps of awareness raising, attitude change and then behaviour change.

Why am I telling you this? It’s obvious, isn’t it, and hardly new.

I mention it because despite consensus that this is where we should be, there’s evidence that many conducting PR-like activities are not on the same page.

Digital PR expert Paul Sutton has investigated one such thread.

‘A firestorm erupted last week when The Times business journalist Deirdre Hipwell tweeted her frustration at being constantly asked by PR and SEO consultants to include hyperlinks to their clients’ websites in her online articles.’

He goes on to explore the apparent confusion between PR and SEO:

‘One thing that struck me about the debate is the way that public relations professionals get lumped in with SEO consultants by journalists. To the extent that I’m pretty sure they think PR and SEO is largely one and the same thing.’

Meanwhile, the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones went public on a very poorly-judged pitch from someone he assumed to be in PR:

If you’re a journalist, it’s irrelevant whether an email pitch has come from a public relations consultant or an SEO specialist. In both these cases, there’s nothing in it for them, but it’s all too obvious what’s in it for those behind the pitches (editorial content, publicity, backlinks for SEO purposes).

Win-win in any negotiation (or in any relationship) requires there to be something in it for both parties. Again, this is merely to state the obvious.

So what’s gone wrong, and what’s the connection between the profession of public relations and the continuing problem with media relationships or confusion over PR and SEO?

Well, one thought is to prize the long-term relationship over the short-term transaction. That’s another way of viewing the outputs-outcomes and means-ends discussion.

I always thought that my media relationships could last longer than my relationship with my current employer. Sometimes, we have to play the long game.

But more practically, most of the problems come from junior practitioners striving to hit their targets and trying to please their boss or client.

Educators can help prepare for such inevitable conflicts, and professional bodies should be there to provide guidance and support, with the eye on the bigger picture, including the reputation of the industry as a whole.

It’s hard to say ‘no can do’ to a boss or client when you’re a junior practitioner. Much better to explain why it’s a ‘no’, by explaining about ethics, and by placing outcomes ahead of outputs and relationships ahead of transactions. It helps to be able to refer to guidance from professional bodies.

It’s about education and it’s about professionalism. So enough of the talk – isn’t it time for action?