Anne Gregory: we must re-frame our thinking and practice where it is naïve, weak, self-deluded or in it for the money

I was fascinated to read Toni Muzi Falconi’s reflection on the London World Public Relations Festival on the 28th June 2008 and the subsequent comments.

Oh what lather we get ourselves into, on both sides!

Critical comment on one side and hurt pride and righteous indignation from the other.

I too was at the London World Public Relations Festival. I was only there for one day and of course my knowledge is partial, having attended only a few of the sessions. Most of these featured case studies on particular campaigns and on how individuals and organisations had approached the challenges and opportunities presented to them.

Unfortunately I missed the two presentations that this blog seemed to praise most – the one on public relations history by Dr Jacquie L’Etang and the one on a Maori public relations model by Graham Sterne, a New Zealand academic. I’ll return to these two later!

Rather than dwelling on the London World Public Relations Festival however, I’d like to focus on a theme that the Festival has prodded me to re-consider – the benefit of critical reflection.

In this profession our discussions tend to be normative, that is we like to talk about how things could or even should be in an ideal world and then proceed to give examples which support our proposition.

Our conferences, festivals, Awards, indeed all our showcase events are full of case studies demonstrating the very best of public relations.
We tend not to showcase the worst, although much could be gained from this.

Make no mistake, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the best in our industry as much as the next man or woman.
But what do we learn from these cases?

Well we can pick up all sort of hints, tips and lessons about how to go about things professionally and effectively and we can learn about what other people do in other cultures and contexts.

This is all enormously beneficial for new and old hands alike.

But the fact is that there are certain underlying principles that underpin good campaigns and once you’ve mastered the theory and the practice, cases can just end up as permutations on a theme.

Unless of course, you go in for writing and presenting cases along the lines of the Harvard model, although, I am bound to say cynically, that public relations people seem to shy away from subjecting their work to the piercing rigour of such an approach.
But cases have their place and when well done can be enormously instructive.

However, for me the most valuable conferences are those that seek to tackle and discuss those undeniable problems and issues that face the public relations profession.

This is not because I’m a masochist, but because I want to make our profession better and more respected and we can only do this when we are honest about the legitimate concerns our practise creates and faces.
Showcase the best of the industry how we like, there is still a great deal of public and private scepticism about those who work in it and of the techniques that we employ.

Recent research with Chief Executive Officers has indicated that they don’t like the term ‘public relations’ and that they don’t want their Directors in charge of communications to have the title ‘Director of Public Relations’.
To them the very words public relations lay their organisations open to accusations of spin.

While CEOs understand that public relations has a much broader remit than spinning stories to the media, they are not convinced that their key stakeholders have a similar understanding.

This trend for an alternative labelling of our profession is also supported by those who are employed in it.

In-house practitioners prefer titles such as Director of External Relations or of Corporate Communications and there are any number of public relations consultancies who have re-labelled themselves as Reputation Managers, or Strategic Communications Consultancies.

So it is evident that those who employ us and those who work in the profession have issues around the name and by implication the practice of public relations.

I will not even begin to list the criticisms of the profession that authors like Stauber and Rampton enumerate.

So, why are there so few conferences, festivals, showcase events, think tanks that invite us to critically assess our own profession; where we can honestly discuss how others see us?

It seems to me that there are a host of profound issues that we need to discuss such as, for example:

° the ongoing ethical problems of our profession;
° how and if we genuinely support democracy (or otherwise NB those consultancies who accept lucrative commissions from dictator regimes);
° if and why we should provide our council to organisations whose contribution to the public good is questionable, for example, the tobacco industry or the drinks industry;
° about how we sustain the power of the status quo and resist with all our power and skill those with opposing but legitimate voices;
° about what the bounds of reasonable advocacy are;
° about how the balance of power between journalists and public relations people has shifted and what our duty is;
° about the legitimate, or otherwise use of guerrilla techniques on the internet –
I could go on….and on….and on.

I have yet to attend a showcase event which seriously addresses these issues, but I also know that there is a great thirst among practitioners to deal with them.

The reason why the L’Etang and Sterne presentations were so popular in London is because they critically reflect on our profession and try to generate new insights which will assist us in our struggle for legitimacy – and make no mistake, we continue to struggle.

It is not a sign of weakness that we honestly address the demons of our profession; it is a sign of maturity and strength.
Others see our problems only too clearly and our lack of willingness to confront them doesn’t make them go away.

If public relations is to move forward we must have the courage to critically reflect on the practise, to publicly accept and debate where there are legitimate issues of concern and to use all the powers of our intellect and moral fibre to re-frame our thinking and practice where it is naïve, weak, self-deluded or in it for the money.

Anne Gregory
July 2008

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2 Replies to “Anne Gregory: we must re-frame our thinking and practice where it is naïve, weak, self-deluded or in it for the money

  1. Anne,

    Much of what you say I completely agree with. My disappointment in London was partly due to my own overly high expectations that had hoped for at least some discussions around even a few of the topics you suggest so that at their conclusion, we could really demonstrate the public benefit of public relations, which I believe is considerable.

    The case history approach has merit, and, when teaching – which I do occasionally – I sometimes use this as a means to get students thinking, but fresh cases which present a challenge are hard to come by as you rightly point out.

    I wouldn’t however support the trend towards ‘alternative labelling’, simply because alternative labels rarely encompass the complexity and necessity of our role. If, as you say, CEOs “understand that public relations has a much broader remit than spinning stories to the media, they are not convinced that their key stakeholders have a similar understanding”, surely it is our job to help them develop and communicate such an understanding among their stakeholders as to what we do and why? And is this CEO view confined to Western-based PR models of practice like the UK where media relations rather than public relations has been a dominant paradigm? I would be interested to learn its extent.

    I am not personally prepared to ‘spin’ what I do out of existence by hiding under or assuming another ‘title’ that doesn’t adequately explain what I do for an organisation. All this does is perpetuate the problem. Director of External Relations is a limited role. So is Reputation Manager. So is Strategic Communications Consultant. Public relations is more than those things – so how can I be effective as a practitioner if I start off by denying what I do? I don’t think that would be particularly ethical of me either – do you? Yes, many people have thrown many stones at public relations professionals over the years for a variety of reasons and to fulfill a variety of agendas. Doesn’t make them right, nor does it excuse us from the long term task of creating a better understanding of the purpose of public relations in the wider community.

    Yes, we need the forums you suggest to discuss where we are, what we do and how others see us; adjusting where necessary, learning always, but perhaps being brave enough to be confident about the considerable and legitimate good that many, many practitioners do all day, every day. I don’t think that is a particularly naive view either, unless of course I have just been particularly fortunate in 20 years to have encountered countless good-hearted, ethical practitioners and, in my time as a journalist, I can say the same of the practitioners I met during what was a very different age! Echoing Toni’s post on geo-fear, the propensity to highlight the bad in favour of the good is borne from old-school mainstream media, which has often been the mirror we use when studying or researching perceptions of ourselves. While I agree that critical reflection is essential, that demons should be outed, and, like many other professions, acknowledge that in today’s world there are things that need fixing and thinking about – it ain’t all that dark.

    Thinking about Patrick’s question, I would suggest that each practitioner has a responsibility to address the profession’s image, supported by the work of their professional association and ultimately the Global Alliance (in its capacity as representative of all its professional association members). We can begin by helping our communities understand the purpose and benefit of public relations and take it from there, even if we do this one stakeholder at a time!

  2. Bravo. I’m currently a PR intern with an interest but no prior experience in the field. I’ve been wading through blog after blog about PR and I can’t remember finding anything that addressed the profession’s image. Ironic, considering PR is all about image.

    I wonder then, what could be done? After all, it’s fine to point out a problem, but what about the solution?

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