What is wrong with PR?

This is probably PR’s greatest irony: PR suffers from bad reputation and image issues. Although the discipline has been institutionalised for years now, the industry is still facing an existential crisis that most practitioners and professional bodies are actively tackling. I wanted to look at the most crucial challenges and misconceptions which, according to me, are at the epicentre of “the PR problem”.

PR shouldn’t be another one-way communication channel that organisations use to serve their own interests

First published in 1999, the visionary authors of the highly impactful Cluetrain Manifesto were merciless when talking about PR’s credibility issue:

“Everyone – including many PR people – senses that something is deeply phony about the profession […]. Take the standard computer-industry press release. With few exception, it describes an “announcement” that was not made, for a product that was not available, quoting people who never said anything, for distribution to a list of people who mostly consider it trash.”

One of the greatest aspects that differentiate us from advertising and marketing is that our ultimate goal is to represent the interests of an organisation’s stakeholders. Interestingly, the same authors also suggested that “the best of the people in PR are not PR types at all. They understand they aren’t censors, they’re the company’s best conversationalists.”

The marketing mind-set, which became popular in the mid-1990s, embodied the linear process of myopic, short-sighed and tactical product-orientated campaigns. Moreover, corporate branding was a case of understanding ‘who we are’ and ‘what we stand for’, and, as a sense giver, sending the message out there.

Meanwhile, PR grew in acceptance while promoting a more strategic, cross-functional and holistic approach. I find that a lot of practitioners today can be too focused on their own brand rather than understanding their key players’ interest.

PR is too “risk averse”

This is another weakness that PR practitioners need to address. In #FuturePRoof, Matthew Hopkins, Chief Executive of Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, made an interesting observation:

“I sometimes observe organisations, especially in the NHS, not having the conversations publicly that they need to because they are too focused on reputation management rather than driving improvement. We need to move beyond that and have the conversations that count.”

Let’s not be scared of the noise. Many voices should participate in the shaping of an organisation’s mission and vision in order to grow and improve. Corporate messaging should be part of a dynamic process, so let’s be more transparent and open!

PR must move away from impersonal communication

“[Organisations] will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.” Cluetrain Manifesto

As we embody organisations and brands, let’s not forget that we are, first, all human, operating in environments filled with people, to serve other people. Typically, organisations build their communication using phrases such as ‘a spokesperson said’, or ‘a representative communicated that’. Impersonal tone makes it hard for the public to relate to a statement.

Instead, some leaders in the industry are advocating the case for plain language in spoken and written communication, whilst also helping leaders express themselves with empathy and humanise their vocabulary more generally. Moreover, whilst language and tone is crucial, granting attention to names other than the CEO’s help humanise communication and restore PR’s sacred role towards people. As Stephen Waddington, Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum, wrote: “Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humour.”

We should seek to understand how PR is being done in practice as opposed to in theory, whilst asking ourselves what our organisation’s  goals are and how we plan to work towards them.  Whilst it might be true that PR has become discredited by the general public and many journalists, the industry is increasingly valued by the public as well as by private and third sector brands. So, if your answers are not the ones you had expected, let’s gather, discuss and work together to help reshape the image of PR.

This article initially appeared on publicrelationsoxford.co.uk and prime-research.com.

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