The big question: are we worth it?

8 Oct

At the start of an undergraduate course, we pose a straightforward question: what is PR?

With more advanced students, we progress to what is the purpose of PR? These discussions can often become rather abstract and idealistic.

Now, there is a more pressing big question facing all in the business: how can we prove the value of PR?

There has been a deep recession; many European countries are facing painful cuts in public spending. Political rhetoric in the UK equates PR jobs with waste and propaganda.

So this is a time for industry leaders to defend PR by making a clear statement of the value it provides to organisations and society. It's a discussion that goes well beyond debates about evaluation and goes to the heart of organisational purpose and sustainability.

Are we worth it? Can we identify the universal value delivered by the public relations function?


This is a preamble to introduce The Stockholm Accords, agreed in June 2010. More important than the text itself is the narrative. In the words of its objective, it is a 'conscious and planned effort to argue the value of public relations…. The end result of this effort is to enhance and reinforce the value proposition of our profession to society and organizations, thus improving our licence to operate on both a global and a local level.'

From the middle of the twentieth century, systems theory was adapted from science via management studies as a framework for explaining the organisational role of public relations. By the end of the century, we had stakeholder theory and the Tomorrow's Company report (which gave us the concept of 'licence to operate'). In the early twenty-first century, we're using the language of sustainability.

As the output of a committee – most of whom do not have English as a first language – the Stockholm Accords are no literary masterpiece. But that's beside the point. We now have an intellectual framework to use as a starting point for a discussion of values and sustainability. It's not the end of the journey, but it's a useful milestone along the way, and progress is being made transparently and cooperatively.

Among the many to have commentated on the Stockholm Accords, Fraser Likely views the text from the perspective of global thought leadership. David Phillips has made a major contribution by asking questions about how we can value relationships and networks.

Note the argument of the critics too. The highly articulate Paul Seaman, addressing this from a free market perspective, sees it (in my words) as meddlesome and over-complicated.

But the questions remain: Are we worth it? How can we prove it?

5 Responses to “The big question: are we worth it?”

  1. Philip Young 08/10/2010 at 12:44 pm #

    An excellent and timely post, Richard. I think you are right in saying that the significance of Stockholm is in the narrative rather than the fairly challenging texts. Not elegant, but important.
    I am simultaneously trying to “explain PR” to new students in terms that somehow accord with their experience and expectations and also come up with a framework of definitions that works for me in 2010. It is not at all easy!
    To make thing even more difficult I have been spending some time recently revisiting practitioner sites that try and explain what it is they do…
    I know this is far from a new problem, and that some get frustrated when the “What is PR?” question is raised, but that doesn’t make it any easier to answer. But, as you say, in age when “Political rhetoric … equates PR jobs with waste and propaganda” we have to try.

  2. Richard Bailey 08/10/2010 at 1:03 pm #

    Thanks, Philip.
    It’s an interesting journey – like you I see it from different places simultaneously since I teach first years (who I can frighten by insisting they take note of the big bad world outside the classroom) and also practitioner-students (who are sometimes slow to value the ideas in the literature).
    I’m still using ‘ideas management’ with new students as a way of taking what they know (PR as events) and developing it. Can’t report any success though (I lost one to ‘a more academic course’ only yesterday).
    In terms of practitioner sites, here’s two that you will know about and which can spark a lively discussion. Weber Shandwick sees PR as advocacy; Edelman as ‘public engagement’.

  3. Philip Young 08/10/2010 at 1:27 pm #

    …. PR as advocacy, as public engagement. Then my students look at
    PUBLIC RELATIONS
    “We are the North’s biggest media relations team, specialising in results-driven PR activity that targets both on and offline media with well-researched press content, …. designed to get you noticed. We create and deliver strategic PR plans – from managing press conferences, arranging media briefings and organising photocalls through to creating newsworthy press releases that work across print titles and digital platforms.”
    (Perhaps I should send an email marking them down for confusing strategy with tactcs)

  4. Richard Bailey 08/10/2010 at 1:56 pm #

    It could be that our students are being intellectually agile in accepting that one view is right in the classroom, and another is right in the workplace.
    Look how it works with AVEs. Everyone who gives it a moment’s thought accepts they’re limited (wrong even) – yet many dutifully crank out an analysis of advertising value equivalency at work.

  5. David Phillips 11/10/2010 at 11:55 am #

    Aye, and there is the rub.
    Not that it matters a great deal. The first and second year student will find this all out in placement years and may need to be agile or subservient to a dominant coalition with an AVE culture but also need to begin to understand that such issues are temporary.
    The ‘Google car’ syndrome (evolution and competition from a completely unexpected direction) is waiting in the wings to subsume PR. We know this because of the holy grail of measuring the value of PR has not been cracked (as driver-less motoring had not been).
    With so much possible using PR, the rewards are far too tempting to leave it be.
    Perhaps students might like to learn to look for the radical which may be common practice on the day they graduate.

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