Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article about The Council of Public Relations Firms, which lists more than 100 PR agencies as its members. The association met in an effort to not only redefine its own image, but attempt to redefine public relations in this new digitally-focused age. What concerns me as a 20-year veteran of the communications and public relations profession is the fact that our industry--as evidenced by the article--is amid an identity crisis.
The clearly defined lines and role of public relations have started to blur and you need look no further than a PR association's job board to notice positions for web designers, desktop publishers and video editors now available. While PR has often been linked as a facet of marketing, many "PR professionals" are now being tasked with and/or seeking responsibilities that previously fell under marketing (graphic design, web design, content creation, photography, etc.) or advertising realms—two completely separate animals.
When I began my PR career, all strategy and supportive tactics were created in an effort to engage, shift or influence mindsets in a mutually beneficial way between clients and their publics (consumers, regulators, stockholders, employees, potential employees, competitors, media, or any other defined constituency). Now, PR industry associations suggest that given the rise of the digital universe, methods used to consume information, and the speed at which it travels, PR people must evolve their careers to meet the demands and expectations of this new age.
When it comes to change, most people ruffle a bit. We are human, after all, and creatures of comfort. We like our routines—from the very mundane to the most regimented—and without them, our moods shift. I’ve personally invested more than 20 years perfecting my craft, operating a successful PR firm, and extending my reach to teach and lecture about the industry. Therefore, when a respected industry association goes on record with the New York Times to suggest the PR industry and its professionals need to change and adapt, believe me, I ruffle!
If I were to ask any PR student (or teacher for that matter) what they believed PR was, I’m sure a smattering of responses from “media relations” to “dealing with key publics” would likely be heard. And, all are correct, but far from complete. PR is not ethereal. It’s a substantive strategic effort to bridge a person or business to its publics. It’s not a specific tactic, but a plethora of tactics combined across a specifically set timeline, and delivered to a targeted demographic—ultimately earning mindshare and influence. It’s not simply about social media or content. Nor is it limited to messaging platforms and news releases. Public relations instead remains focused on earned influence. It isn’t our profession or the definition of public relation that needs to change. The crux of the change however is how we earn our influence with the added benefit of technology.
Fearing an industry transformation, many freelance public relations professionals are attempting to become generalists by expanding their scope of abilities and experience to cross over to marketing and advertising. Additionally, PR industry associations (as evidenced above) are seeking to change their identities and deliver webinars and training on “how to do desktop publishing.” To me, this is an outrage as it is being suggested that to avoid extinction, we must dilute our brand, experience, knowledge base and industry as a whole.
I’m not an ancient fella. I leverage social media, conduct webinars, and even regularly stretch my journalistic legs. But what I won’t do is completely lose sight of my career purpose—which has afforded me, my staff and our clients, successful reputations, strong brands, and strategic relationships for many years. Unlike some of my industry cohorts, I don’t agree that a strategic shift in identity is required. The digital realm is just the latest form of newsprint. Regardless of how quickly it spins off ‘print rollers,’ public relations is not in need of a makeover.
For some time now, I’ve recommended to our own clients, “do not fear the first …but instead…focus on the future.’ While I may ruffle temporarily at change, I don’t fear it. What I do fear is the belief that public relations can no longer remain a contributing process on its own—without the addition of functions and responsibilities typically handled by marketing or advertising types. I’d prefer to leave Photoshop in the hands of the graphically talented, and web design in the hands of super coders, while I pick up the nearest business magazine to read about my clients. I’m instead focusing on the future and how I can use years of experience to mesh what I know with anything that has yet to come. ~JM