The craft that dare not speak its name

14 Dec

I love PRPublic relations (or PR). There, I said it.

Many people (including some of those who work in the field) have a problem with the term ‘public relations’.

But what’s so disreputable about paying attention to the public (or, better, having regard for the public interest)?

What’s wrong with building relationships with those who matter to your organisation or cause?

If there’s nothing wrong with PR in principle, then the problem must lie in the way it’s practised – or in the gap between principle and practice.

That allows its critics to condemn public relations as, um, a PR exercise. To damn it as spin, manipulation or lies.

That’s why so many practitioners – particularly in the public sector – prefer to use the neutral sounding ‘communication/s’. When the public is paying for your service (though taxes), you want to avoid the charge that you’re using public money to hide the truth.

Communication/s: sounds good, doesn’t it?

There are two problems though (besides the point that no one can agree on whether it should be singular or plural).

One is practical. In a world in which all professional and managerial work involves communication, what sets the paid communicators apart? Doctors and lawyers communicate; accountants communicate; managers communicate. Communication may even distinguish the good ones from the rest, but communication doesn’t define what they do.

The other is a question  of professional status. Communication is what you do when a decision has been reached: you tell people about it. There’s no implication that professional communicators help shape those decisions. (In other words, it suggests a functional rather than a strategic role for comms practitioners).

Yet public relations – the practice that manages relationships with groups that are important to the success or failure of the organisation and which has regard for the public interest – goes beyond communication. It has a say in how the organisation behaves.

Why does this matter? Public relations had a good twentieth century, its first century as a named practice and would-be profession. It established itself; became an academic discipline; increased rapidly in numbers and gained professional and trade associations. There’s now a lot invested in the name.

If that name is misunderstood and widely discredited – then how can the field continue to assert its relevance and significance?

There are no lack of those in more assertive and less self-critical fields who’d like to make a land grab. Marketing, advertising, human resources, management consultancy and the law all overlap with public relations.

This is why discussions around the role, purpose and (even) definition of public relations matter. They’re not mere academic questions: they matter to the work of tens of thousands of people. They matter to the organisations why hire and pay them.

These questions even have implications for the strength of our democracy and society.


3 Responses to “The craft that dare not speak its name”

  1. Heather Yaxley 16/12/2015 at 11:14 am #

    I couldn’t agree more with you here Richard. Great post that elucidates the issue with the spread of the ‘innocuous’ word: communication(s). It is all about mouth rather than brain, or even ears when it is used to reflect communicating AT rather than WITH others (internally and externally).

    It also is a word that lacks energy in my view and has a passivity that belies the dynamic approach required when addressing the many important strategic issues that affect publics (individuals and collectively), organisations and wider society, whether these relate to promotion of products or people, or weighty matters such as sustainability, security and responsibility.

    • Richard Bailey 16/12/2015 at 12:50 pm #

      Thank you, Heather. It’s been a longish journey for me to come round to this view: I was quoted (when still a practitioner/trainer) in an early edition of Alison Theaker’s The Public Relations Handbook arguing that we should drop ‘public relations’ in favour of either ‘marketing communication’ or ‘corporate communication’. I no longer agree with myself!

      But there’s another important group that also disagrees. Internal communicators tend to resist PR because of its perceived emphasis on external publics.

      I thought one of the most interesting discussions following publication of FuturePRoof was that between Jon White’s view of the limitation of communication(s) and Liam Fitzpatrick’s defence that communication(s) does not exclude the advisory role.

  2. seanptrainor 27/12/2015 at 9:58 am #

    I have an issue with the term ‘public relations’. In my experience the majority of PR departments only really manage relationships with 2 ‘publics’ – journalists and politicians. I would argue that neither of these groups really represent public interest and are much less interested and influential in the success or failure of an organisation than its employees, shareholders and customers. I’m also not aware of many PR departments that manage relationships with those groups!. If you believe that public relations is more descriptive of your practice than stakeholder communication/s you are most probably spending a large part of your morning going through press cuttings, a large part of you afternoon at lunch and a large part of your evening attending professional networking events.

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