Public 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.