Back to basics: What ‘Exploring Public Relations and Management Communication’ tells us about the current state of PR

If you went to university, chances are that you came across one book that was a game changer. Whether it was the book that made you choose your career, helped you pass your exams, or inspired the topic of your dissertation, it’s likely we all remember one seminal text above all others.

For me, that special book is Exploring Public Relations, Third Edition, by Ralph Tench and Liz Yeomans (2013), which was vital during my Masters’ degree in Corporate Communications and Public Affairs.

This book was an actual PR bible (no exaggeration). It covered so many different aspects of PR, from media relations and crisis management, to CSR and PR evaluation, and it offered a perfect blend of theory and real-life case studies.

Since my graduation, I’ve changed cities, houses and jobs and have always kept that one PR book on the shelf. You know, just in case “I needed to check something”.

So when Stephen Waddington announced his collaboration with Ralph Tench on the fifth edition of Exploring Public Relations and Management Communication, I was naturally very excited to get a copy – anticipating another seminal tome which would take up a place on my bookshelf.

Getting a fundamental yet practical textbook about the industry you work in gives you the tools to think critically, make valuable contributions to your profession and understand the implications of your work. And there are plenty of valuable lessons to be learned from Stephen and Ralph here.

Here is a quick summary of four highly topical additions to the book:

COVID-19

The Coronavirus pandemic is undeniably the most important event in recent history. The book was completed in May 2020, so it’s useful to find a postscript reflecting on the impact of the pandemic – and which reinforces the importance of strategic PR during this difficult period.

Importantly, the pandemic has taken evaluation and measurement of communication to a whole new level. Practitioners must, more than ever, assess the impact of their activities at speed. They must consider the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental (PESTLE) implications of their work. And, by harnessing the power of data, they must continuously test and re-test what they’re doing, while operating in an uncertain economic climate.

Artificial Intelligence

AI’s impact on PR is significant, and will continue to be. Certain tasks carried out by practitioners will continue to be made redundant, particularly in the communications measurement and evaluation sector. However, automation doesn’t mean that humans will no longer be needed. At the other end of the computer, there will always be the need for a human to make sense of the information and take decisions. A hybrid of tech and human intelligence is needed.

The PR industry has to adapt, and fast. CIPR #AIinPR expert Kerry Sheehan warned: “Many other professions have a more robust approach to exploring the impact of AI. PR doesn’t seem to be doing so. It’s sleepwalking.” So, no doubt that two of the main PR professional bodies in Europe, the CIPR and the PRCA, will be looking at leveraging the impact of technology on our jobs.

Disinformation

The democratisation of information-making on the Internet, and the rise of mobile communications, has completely redefined the way we receive, perceive and digest newsworthy content.

And this phenomenon prevails more and more. How? Because social media platforms and browsers fragment this content to create algorithm-driven experiences tailored for each user. And crucially, information in the digital age is completely redefining and posing significant issues around fake news and authenticity in a post-truth world.

I liked the inclusion of an example by the UK Government cracking down on the spread of COVID-19 disinformation to illustrate the importance of monitoring content and shaping media discourse. In this case, the Rapid Response Unit was tasked to remove fake news.

But generally, who should be responsible for challenging disinformation and fake news? Some questions on the future ethical responsibility of information remain.

Ethics

“Morality is a job for priests. Not PR men.”

This quote from Bell Pottinger in the introduction of the chapter on professionalism and ethics is a great illustration of the work that there is still to do on improving the reputation of some PRs.

The book suggests that a key challenge may be in the confusion around the scope of our activities and our links with other well-defined disciplines such as marketing.

In an attempt to “reframe the profession through a capabilities approach”, the book shares an incredible piece of 2019 research that represents institutions from seven continents. A two-page framework outlines not only “what practitioners considered to be the core capabilities of the public relations profession as a whole, but also what might prevent individuals – and the profession- from realising their potential.”

And, great advice from Johanna Fawkes’ chapter: “Instead of looking for rules and accepting situations that ‘feel’ wrong but are legal, perhaps practitioners need to learn to trust their discomfort. Without reflection, it is hard to see how PR can earn back lost trust.”

All in all, Exploring Public Relations and Management Communication provides an accurate representation of the current state of PR and aims to define public relations as a management discipline.

The different chapters are punctuated with reminders on the importance of demonstrating the value of our work through credible and meaningful measurement. Described as “the profession’s long-standing Achilles heel”, PR measurement and evaluation continue to be explored and celebrated, particularly thanks to the positive contribution of AMEC in this field with its free educational resources including the Barcelona Principles, Integrated Evaluation Framework and the Measurement Maturity Mapper.

Proving value means demonstrating PR’s growing contribution to management and positive effect on the organisation, and I believe that the change in the book’s title reflects this. The work of PR professionals does not merely consist in transmitting messages to audiences. It is about building, creating and sustaining relationships. It is informing and advising the Senior Management Teams. It is about managing reputations and developing strategies.

As a testimony of this, this book will sit on my desk, close to hand and be frequently referenced for a very long time to come. It should be on yours too.

More information about “Exploring Public Relations and Management Communication”, 5th edition, can be found at exploringpr.com and the book can be purchased here.

This blog originally appeared on CARMA’s website.

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