Where is PR?

16 Sep

More interesting than discussing ‘what is PR?’ is the question of ‘why do PR?’ Most interesting of all is the question of where PR sits in the organisation – the theme of the upcoming EUPRERA congress, awkwardly titled ‘institutionalizing (sic) public relations and corporate communication’.

Dr Tom Watson has just presented at a management forum in South Africa and has this to say about the locus of public relations education:

If PR is to gain continuing recognition as a management function, programmes need to either be situated in business schools (separate from marketing programmes) or have a strong managerial focus if placed elsewhere.

7 Responses to “Where is PR?”

  1. Greg Smith, PhD 17/09/2008 at 8:35 am #

    Hi, Richard. This is one of the frustrating things about PR: that we continue to discuss its place at management level.
    Trouble is, most university faculties and schools are run by people with no business experience.
    I just left an institution where PR was part of Arts and Education. What has that got to do with business? Across town, another uni places it in the School of Business, where it belongs, as Tom Watson points out. Academics jealously protect their fifedoms (yes, we have them Down Under, too). They don’t see the big picture: that students need exposure to business, not “basket-weaving”.
    Our future business leaders in commerce, marketing and law need to be exposed to their PR counterparts at university, otherwise how on earth will they ever know what PR is about.
    Conversely, PR students need exposure to business practice, otherwise they’ll just end up writing media releases and organising events.

  2. Richard Bailey 17/09/2008 at 9:41 am #

    Thanks Greg (and congratulations on your move).
    We do teach some ‘basket weaving’ here, but do so in a business context. Even more noteworthy, we’re just starting a Journalism degree within the same business faculty, arising out of our existing PR teaching. A world first?

  3. David Phillips 18/09/2008 at 2:29 pm #

    Richard, I have left a comment on Tom’s blog but can’t let this opportunity go by.
    The Euprera agenda begins with spin because it has the preamble:
    “Public Relations and Corporate Communication have been, and are, rapidly evolving and expanding their influence within complex organizations.”
    Well, semantics first. Corporate Communication is to Public Relations as tennis balls are to Wimbledon. Why not add in press release writing and events management? The highest calling is to be responsible for managing organisational capability in relationship development with publics/constituents. The rest is technique.
    The truth is that PR has wimped out of its responsibilities for so long that its premier European education and research organisation can get away with the intellectual equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing. Here we see the professionals and academics twirling around for the entertainment of the of an audience.
    Lets call a spade a spade. The world is going through financial turmoil because public relations practitioners were just not up to the job.
    When one banker cannot trust another banker there is a breakdown of not just trust but relationships and an absence of meaningful, symmetrical communication. Who was the manager responsible within the organisation for trust, relationships and communication? Where are the PR practitioners ‘expanding their influence within complex organizations’?
    I don’t really care what the twirling dancers may want to reply, the semantics are but chiffon disguising the stumbling footwork. The fact is that there is only one discipline responsible – public relations management.
    As a discipline it evidently has not expanded influence within complex organisations and most notably today, the majority of the whole financial sector world wide. Today, if you have money from the public or are a government, you can buy almost any bank in the world at a massive discount – if you dare to trust the balance sheet!
    The abysmal internal and external relationships that has lead us to this pass has one culprit.
    Oh, I am sure that the PR courses taught by the worthies at the conference cover subject matter like ethics, the nature and role of symmetrical and a-symmetrical relationships in developing mutual understanding and the role of transparency in building mutual trust. But do they follow this through with how these elements of PR play out in practice? What are the consequences? Or how these elements are managed (by the practitioner?) in an organisation?
    If not, why teach these subjects? Are these elements of PR degrees added to give some form of academic respectability in the courses like sequins stitched on to make a plain frock look like a ball gown?
    The insecurity of the profession as it dances an endless two-step between being press releases and a contender for the ‘C’ suite is down to poor education. It is just not difficult to circulate a memo to the board saying that trust and transparency issues are ruining relationships and will wipe out the company if the board does not get a grip – and I know how to solve the problem. Any junior PR can do it and the ‘head’ of PR should, knowing how to manage communication effectively, find such a move easy. Its sure route to the ‘C’ Suite and it is only those who lack courage, doubt, are insecure or ill trained and have not arrived who doubt.
    But how to manage that sort of relationship and that sort of programme is not typically part of the PR industry’s research or teaching or practice. Perhaps then, PR is not seen in academia as a management practice.
    I have not seen, and doubt if we will ever see mass, professional or academic condemnation and approbation of PR management at the UK’s Northern Rock and HBOS banks, even though we, as tax payers, are picking up the bill and many will also pay with their livelihoods.
    The reality is that public relations, as a management discipline, is tough, hard nosed, institutionally pervasive and offers trust in and through constituent desire for engagement; offering symmetrical relationships to deliver long term stability, and in the case of commerce, consequential trade and profit.
    The firm (which, I contend, is the nexus of relationships), will always be better off with good public relations and it starts with answering your question ‘where is PR’.
    It should be quaking in its boots. It should be anticipating the enquiry into its failures that prompted the Credit Crunch and financial sector melt-down and its consequences.
    It should be concerned that the role of its institutions will be subject to academic scrutiny over standards.
    It should be examining how future generations of practitioners do not lead us to such a pass.
    Unless we see such investigation then perhaps in answering ‘Where is PR’ the repost will be ‘no one cares.’

  4. Richard Bailey 18/09/2008 at 3:01 pm #

    Hello David
    To respond to you obliquely: I was thinking of you when reading The Economist summarising the work of Philip Kotler: http://www.economist.com/business/management/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12210481&Fsrc=mgttkgnwl
    I quote:
    Eventually Kotler came to see marketing as being about the exchange of values between two parties and, as such, a social activity, not just a business one. He coined the term “social marketing”, defined by Wikipedia as “the systematic application of marketing (along with other concepts and techniques) to achieve specific behavioural goals for a social good”.
    The unescapable factor here is change, but I do confess that it’s easier (and more reassuring) to teach static models and theories. To return to your analogy, it’s much harder to strike a moving ball than a static one.
    Anyone can manage in the good times, you could argue, but only the best will survive tough times. It will be interesting to watch the value placed on relationships (or brands, or reputation) over the next year.

  5. David Phillips 18/09/2008 at 4:08 pm #

    I agree, it is hard to change University courses.
    One university I know would not provide time for research to update the undergraduate online PR module from one year to the next as though online communications was as static as moveable type. A year later, it discovered that it could not meet student expectation and, folly of follies, used ‘online marketing’ teaching resource to fill the gap.
    Yes, one might expect an economist to miss out the significance of relationships in the exchange of values. Kotler could only think of marketing as a solution to his communication problem when he postulated social marketing. He was, after all, writing in a time of command and control communication.
    We now know that much behaviour is driven by the community and any attempt to achieve specific behavioural goals for a social good requires a convergence in values for the relationship to emerge and develop. In such cases the public will have an influence over the organisation or the relationship will fracture and often create dissonance.
    To have convergent values does require transparency (often management of radical transparency). Without transparency, there is a period when a relationship will be apparent but, at the point when one or the other party has a doubt, obfuscation will inevitably result in a rift (take for example Northern Rock). It was no co-incidence that when the NR web site failed to respond (a complete communications dislocation) it produced an enhanced run on the bank. Reputation is damaged and events take their own course. Guess who failed to manage the Northern Rock’s online reputation – a computer or the ‘reputation manager’? We should not blame it on some poor IT guy with half baked ideas about DoS and its relationship to reputation).
    As you know, and for the sake of transparency, I have little time for marketing. It is a failed discipline and is being found out now that social communication can expose its incontinence.
    That does not excuse the poor performance of PR in the present time. Nor does it excuse the failure of academia to stay up to date with useful research and modern courses.
    I do think that the PR industry should berate Vice Chancellors for their abject failure in understanding the relevance of PR and its fast moving nature. It should be a core module across vocational courses. If students do not understand the drivers of relationships, how they can aspire be an accountant, economist, nurse etc.
    Perhaps EURPERA could address these issues too.

  6. Richard Bailey 19/09/2008 at 10:03 am #

    You’re at your best when angry 🙂 Glad to have obliged…

  7. Heather Yaxley 19/09/2008 at 5:28 pm #

    Beyond the “where is PR?” in terms of looking at the location of the PR practitioners within organisations (and/or where PR sits in Universities), I’d like to know where is the PR in the syllabus of business management courses.
    We can berate the PR function in organisations currently experiencing lack of trust, but the bigger question is where is the understanding of PR among the senior executives?
    Yes, their PR counsellors (inside the organisation and within well-paid consultancies) need to educate the top dudes, but until they learn for themselves that PR is not what Kotler reduced to part of promotion (before he decided to absorb what we know as PR within the wider marketing function).
    If there ever was a time when PR should be doing PR for itself it is now – the world needs leaders who can truly understand the world’s interdependence and how to rebuild the trust and reputation that is needed for stability.
    PR needs to not be simply located in the boardroom or the business faculty for the sake of practitioners, but for the sake of ensuring it is part of the knowledge base of anyone responsible for managing an organisation.

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