Declaring piffle on those "traditional PR" publicity arguments

Recently I visited Black Creek Pioneer Village, a rather unique “recreated” village (it is described as an “outdoor living history museum”) harkening back to the 1860s, which has grown both in density and its rich “relating” of history in the approximately 50 years since its inception. As someone who holds a double-specialist undergraduate degree in English and History—and, more recently, as a proponent of the “organizational narrative“—it should be obvious why I have an affinity for this place.

Although this village never existed in its present incarnation—over the years various historical building have been purchased and transported to the designated property (with acreage close to the northern boundary of the City of Toronto) from locations across Ontario—every Victorian structure is original (i.e., authentic), including furnishings and meticulously researched history of actual past owners’ families and trades, plus their daily customs and interactions. Even if original building locations were disparate, the genuine narrative of a distinctive period of time remains a constant.

The timing of my journey and visit was deliberate, because for several weeks at the end of each year the Christmas traditions of the Upper Canada pioneers who emigrated from England, Scotland and Ireland are recreated and explained by the historic interpreters in period dress.

What constitutes a tradition or the traditional?

Traditional rug hooking

My well-worn, hardcover print copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary (my late father’s copy, dating from 1964) defines tradition as, “Opinion or belief or custom handed down… from ancestors to posterity.

As a tradition appears to need some durability to be designated as such, I find myself taking umbrage about blanket assertions, mainly by those who focus on consumer marketing, about the end (or eroding) of “traditional PR,” when what they are talking about is a reduction in importance of (mainstream) media relations, particularly for “earned media” coverage about the latest new processed-food item or mechanical widget, or “influence monitoring” service from a tech startup.

I’ve never understood why the journalist-employee aggregate of privately owned media companies is deemed “public” relations, but that’s a separate rant.

It appears promotional marketers, who make this “traditional PR” assertion, prefer a modern-day “engaging” version of “public relations” of the online variety. Often you will see detailed a digital “PR” toolkit of needed contemporary skills that revolve around ensuring customers truly “experience the brand” (particularly in social), writing and monitoring for SEO, Facebook contests, tweeting about campaigns, creating a hashtag around a book launch party, video-production capabilities, coding skills, building “communities” of brand champions and so on.

I say piffle to that very narrow and tactical version of “traditional” vs. modern public relations. Particularly as it so often comes down to where we work and how we spend our work days, not to mention at what stage a person is in her or his career, including development of strategic, critical thinking skills and accountability at the senior level.

In my PRSA submission for its #PRin2013 series, I quoted from a participant in a Public Relations and Communications Professionals LinkedIn Group discussion (on “whether PR should be under the marketing umbrella”) who stated, “Also bear in mind that consultancy PR is a million miles away from in-house work.”

Likewise, Heather Yaxley, co-author of The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit, recently indicated to me, “If there is a division emerging it is those who understand strategic organisational benefits from those who are tactical—whether or not that is traditional or social media focused.”

Brand publicity and strategic communications are two different professions

A traditional English plum duff, surrounded by ratafia biscuits and with a piece of white gingerbread on top.

I’ve been thinking for awhile that we need more precision regarding our public relations language, its history and, in regards to this post, assertions about the “traditional.”

It’s an opinion that appears to be shared by Bournemouth University’s Professor Tom Watson in his February 2013 Op-Ed, beginning with this historical articulation:

It’s time once and for all for publicity and public relations to separate.

My research into the way that public relations has evolved over the last century shows that it has been in two distinct forms since the 1950s.

Before then, publicity and media relations were just seen as a way of delivering an organisation’s public relations objectives and strategy. After consumer marketing took off in the 1960s and brands went world-wide, publicity appropriated the title of PR and became mainstream practice. Public relations, as it was recognised back then, became the minority method, mainly carried out in corporations and governments.

Continuing this chronological perspective, Watson quotes UK public relations pioneer Tim Traverse-Healy’s words in 1988, about a need for this distinction:

Communication activities such as product advertising, product publicity, editorial publicity or sales promotion…sometimes masquerade under the banner title of public relations, but in reality they are substantially dedicated to the short-term sales objectives of a corporate, namely the increased take-up of products or services…. Product publicity is not public relations although some opportunists fast to jump on a bandwagon would like us to believe it so.

Traditional Victorian toys

I remember being quite amazed, even taken aback, at the amount of vicious negativity that resulted when PRSA conducted its “crowdsourced” definition of public relations two years ago, but since time have come to appreciate that most of the pushback came from those who spend their days doing agency (consultancy) work, particularly of the promotional variety.

As Tom Watson wrote,

A quarter of a century on, the representation of “publicity = PR” is unmistakable.

It is at the heart of the constant bickering over definitions, professional standards, measurement and evaluation and soul-searching over education and training.

Traditional declarations in future

Let us recognize that one communication role and set of responsibilities is not superior to another—it’s more related to professional and personal orientation, skill set and employer/client goals and objectives.

I respect and recognize those who are adept and have a deep understanding of (and appreciation for) traditional and modern-day media relations, publicity, marketing, advertising and so on.

But why not define and declare such functions more precisely, including what aspects are time-honoured and researched (strategic and tactical) traditions, rather than feeling the need to (mis)use the public relations banner or narrative?

The series of posts Heather Yaxley is doing on PR Conversations, drawn from the 1948 book on public relations, is certainly under-cutting some of the marketing-driven interpretations of recent “history.”

(On a side note, if you are going to discount “traditional” relationships with the media, remember that the digital world offers journalists more options, too, particularly when it comes to “issues and reputation management.”)

As we move closer to 2014, tell me what stereotypes and declarations about public relations you believe to be piffle and would like to see removed from future articles and interpretations.

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37 Replies to “Declaring piffle on those "traditional PR" publicity arguments

  1. Lots of great commentary being shared, so I won’t repeat it. I just wanted to share a “best-advice-I-ever-got” experience.

    I was fortunate during my schooling to have an instructor who emphasized the clear difference between publicity and public relations as both a skill set and objectives. From that experience, and knowing how creative our professions can be with language or titles, I’ve found it useful to first learn what a person thinks their role entails, not just hang it all on their title. If someone resists “traditional” (whatever that means to them) as a cover for ignoring the fundamentals, it’s best to simply walk away.

  2. Finally, finally getting around to commenting. A few random thoughts, with a little backstory.

    My stance on publicity NOT being the end-all of PR, hopefully that’s clear. At the same time, I give awareness its due .. kinda hard to develop a relationship, building an enduring reputation that becomes part of a company’s ethos w/out it. (BTW I’ve been enjoying the Bacardi ads that celebrate and tell their storied history.) I’m also an integrationist, believing silos hurt; knowing everyone has to measure and show results and that while sales is of course a big one, it’s not the only KPI. To that end I really appreciate both Toni and Richard comments, and do hope some of these future posts come out.

    Especially Sean’s. I left grad school, unable to finish a thesis (don’t get me started, needed to get back to work) in Communications, PR-focused. Going so far as to take management based electives in the business school, I was thinking of PR in terms of business/organizational comms. When I read about the shifts over the years .. branching off to product publicity, consulting out this discipline, HR taking over that .. it breaks my heart a little. The PR I learned was traditional Public(s) Relations, the P was pleural. Many many key stakeholders and you can’t promote one thing to this public, while telling your employees another etc etc. ITA w/ Sean that Communications should be the umbrella arc or key spoke in an organization; that more than anything, in all its forms, Communication is what makes a business work. That’s how you recruit and hire, that’s how you shape a narrative that gets people’s attention and motivates action, how you tap social resources to innovate and so much more. If your business isn’t communicating, you’re not doing business. In my humble, biased opinion PR = Communications; that’s what I can’t ‘sell’ but I am working on it. FWIW.

    1. Hi Davina – when you say you can’t sell PR=Comms, is that in the practical sense? As in, “my practice depends on the publicity/media relations angle, rather than the more strategic…”

      To my view (and Judy’s, based on my understanding of hers) is that the publicity/marketing-related tactics have to be in the context of an overarching strategic outlook and approach. That’s where the idea of dropping PR as the description of what we do in favor of “strategic communication” or some such comes from.

      There’s nothing at all wrong with specializing in publicity — what’s wrong is defining PR as <> publicity.

      To your point about KPIs – there certainly is an educational opportunity here. But I’d also say there’s nothing inherently wrong with an organization deciding that the only PR KPIs they want are external and sales related. They certainly are missing out on a lot of potential value in reputation management, risk mitigation, internal communication and more, and that’s where fighting the good fight becomes so important.

      Thanks for your props on my humble comment…

      1. Context, yes. I’ve tried to sell strategic communication, the education you speak of Sean but the small biz clients I’ve dealt with simply aren’t buying. You’re right – clients can pick and choose their objectives, and for many the focus, the only goal is ‘sales, now!’ One way I describe it – and why I’m looking to get away from this kind of small biz altogether, back to corp – is w/ sports analogy:

        They want the SuperBowl win. That’s it. They won’t pay for the research or recruiting, the scouting, all the player development that came for years before. They’re not interested in studying their opponents. All the victories it took to get there, really that shouldn’t be work. When the moment ends in victory, all they care about is cashing in; they’re not gonna look back to see why and how they won, what worked, what didn’t and couple still be opportunity for improvement. Then scratch their heads why it doesn’t work again the next time, why all of that costs and why they can’t pay only for the 2-minutes of walking around as champs w/out any additional investment.

        It’s a brochure – not a key part of branding, messaging; they don’t see it as an extension of an overall strategy, just a piece of paper that needs to sell, and be as cheap as possible. Part of its the biz life cycle, part of it the economic landscape, part of it is strategy on their part. A local ‘insert X here’ business, a ‘better’ logo or fully integrated program won’t necessarily make all that much difference – not if their business or service or product isn’t what customers want or need. I get a small biz owner not wanting to invest where returns are in question – heck, I often advise them not to. And FWIW, I have a direct mail piece on my desk know I’m planning to write about, know even the big guys get it wrong, waste a lot of money on fruitless efforts (but I’m hoping I can help some change that).

    1. Thanks PR Agency San Antonio, but “applying new technologies” is about the tactics, rather than the strategy of organizational public relations and communication management.

      Your PR “what” and “why” strategy is really platform neutral. (It’s the how, where and when tactics that are more likely to involve new technologies.)

      I do think the digital and social media world does call out for a communication audit, to see whether documents/platforms that are automatically issued still are worthy of our time. It’s much easier to measure the quantitative “read” (or at least “download”/”view”) aspect of things. The qualitative aspect of changing minds and behaviours is another thing altogether.

      1. Judy,

        Thanks for this well-researched, well written and reasoned post. Sorry I come to the conversation rather late. The ever recurring debate about tacticians and strategists on the PR arena could be possibly resolved by using a simple analogy: On a major construction site there are architects, structural engineers and other specialized professions at work. There are also masons, carpenters and manual workers who are instructed to do certain specific tasks that all lead to the construction of the structure that has been drawn by an architect and erected by a structural engineer. The masons and carpenters do what they are told and don’t pretend to be architects or structural engineers.

        The problem with PR is that the profession’s masons and carpenters pretend to be architects and structural engineers and even sometimes claim that their tactical input is as crucial to the final outcomes as that of those who envision, plan and execute strategic alternatives and choose to drop.Therein lies the confusion. Press releases and media relations are well and good but to claim they constitute the core PR is an exercise in self delusion than can only be perpertrated by those who believe in their own press releases.

        1. Don, you can be as late to the “piffle” party as you want if you come up with such brilliant analogies. I heart these breakdowns!

          And, if you pair them up with Richard Bailey’s earlier descriptions about the age and levels of size/sophistication of an organization, I bet your “masons, carpenters, architects and structural engineer” PR practitioners would be even easier to “place” properly.

          Thank you for adding to the conversations, both online and off. And I hope you had a wonderful month-long home visit to your native Kenya. Selfishly, I missed your active presence during that time period, but you’ve more than made up for the absence here in this comment!

  3. Fascinating discussion here Judy. Not to repeat what has been said, but I feel that there are a couple of trends that will affect thinking about PR-marketing-publicity-lobbying-social media, etc.

    The first relates to a need for those who can take a holistic viewpoint – most likely at a senior level which will need to encompass a wide range of what we currently see as distinct (or subjugated) disciplines. An analogy may be that these are the film directors/producers or orchestral conductors, whose role is to harness the talents and capabilities of specialists. I would argue that currently PR practitioners should be in a position to take on this role. As Toni has indicated, this actually goes back to how PR was before the dominance of the advertising-publicity thinking of communications in the 1950s-1980s. But as we cannot actually go back, we need a new route to create this perspective because on current evidence, it is more likely that those from other backgrounds will do so. For me, I feel this means those with influence in PR have to be in high level discussion with their counterparts in other specialisms such as HR and marketing, which include communications/relationships within their remit, but it is not the full extent of what they do.

    The counter-trend is for specialism. There are many areas that may have once fallen into the PR fold that are seeking to be seen as distinct strategic disciplines such as internal communications, public affairs, and even digital communications. I see publicity as both a tool and a function (ie there are publicists but also publicity may be an appropriate tactic for various purposes). Within the specialism viewpoint, new areas of expertise will emerge and old ones will disappear. There may always be a need for the carpenter to use the analogy that Sean introduces, but not to diagnose critical issues where other skills may be required.

    If we separate out publicists from wider PR, we run the risk of their higher profile dominating the practice even more. Instead, I would like to encourage greater recognition of the value of publicity positioned as a specialism.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response, Heather. In your first section, this was my favourite part:

      “…his means those with influence in PR have to be in high level discussion with their counterparts in other specialisms such as HR and marketing, which include communications/relationships within their remit, but it is not the full extent of what they do.”

      I concur. When I was in an in-house PR role and worked with a really smart (and thoughtful) marketer, we were able to accomplish many wonderful things, because we listened to one another’s ideas (and arguments), and figured out what worked best for the organization overall, which took into account our own PR or marketing goals and objectives. Mainly they were along the same lines, occasionally they differed. But the “understanding” was at the heart of it all.

      Regarding specialization, given that so many see promotion AS “public relations” (a part of marketing), and that’s how they spend the majority of their work day, how can the “promotion-as-a-part-of public relations specialist” stand out? Or be trained?

      As I commented to Richard Bailey, I definitely see some emerging areas of specialization, such as financial communication (for investor relations). And perhaps those people can help dispel another widely reported stereotype and myth, “that people go into public relations because they hate math.”

      Honestly, it shouldn’t even be “math” that’s talked about–it’s financial and accounting concepts (at the business level)…..

  4. Judy – as usual, a thoughtful, and thought-provoking post. These existential and somewhat academic arguments fascinate me (I’m such a geek), in part because they lead, ideally, to honest reflection. In the organizational learning course I just took, there is a distinction between questions borne of conviction and those borne of curiosity. Much of the “who are we?” debate is based on conviction — the questioner is more interested in promulgating his or her own ideas than on discovering a new answer. The question-conviction seeks confirmation; the question-curiosity seeks an answer or answers.

    Much like the story of the carpenter who has only a hammer and therefore sees only nails, the “marketing is everything” crowd can’t envision any kind of world where that statement could be untrue. Therefore, all communication must be marketing, and so all PR is publicity. If we return to the definitions of the phases of PR’s development (press agentry, public information, one-way asymmetrical, two-way symmetrical — these marketers are stuck in the first phase (with a few reaching into the first three) and nearly no one in the last and, according to Grunig and Hunt, anyway, best.

    The best marketing can do is one-way asymmetry. There’s no chance to even react to stakeholders with differing objectives, and no opportunity to adjust behavior to create mutually beneficial outcomes. There’s no exchange relationship, no transaction in the two-way symmetrical model. One answer is to unify all communication activities – but under a Chief Communication Officer, not a CMO. This is a tough sell to a C-suite dominated by people who’ve studied marketing in business school, but not PR. Another answer is to let product publicity rest in marketing, and leave the public affairs, corporate relations, strategic communications etc. in their own department. The trick again will be divorcing the precepts guiding marketing from those guiding PR in the minds of those signing the checks.


    1. That sounds like a fascinating course, Sean. Was it in your graduate program? I think when you refer to conviction I’ve been aware of it already, except under the terminology of confirmation bias. And, yes, I’m cognizant of my own desire for confirmation bias, including when writing posts, and in particular in regards to the type of commenters that are attracted (particularly individuals who I respect).

      Not only must people feel free to speak up and dispute what we think and write, but there has to be some wiggle-room and ability to be persuaded to change one’s mind. Or grow understanding and appreciation from both sides. But that requires a thorough reading and understanding of both sides of the communication equation—it’s very frustrating when people make sweeping, usually negative, comments when it’s quite obvious the actual argument has not been read and considered.

      This understanding happened to me via many of the above commenters in this post, which makes the writing of it very worthwhile from my perspective. Much less valuable are the comments going on in a LinkedIn Group discussion on this same post, where most of the discussion is revolving around the ongoing-or-not effectiveness of media relations and/or whether publicists do public relations. Sigh. Those were supposed to be starting points for the conversations, not a place to get stuck in endless debates that don’t change any minds….

      I appreciate much of what you’ve said, but I think the part that I will hold on to and repeat the most is, “There’s no exchange relationship, no transaction in the two-way symmetrical model.”

      Finally, can we trust leaving publicity to the average marketer, given how narrow is the focus on ensuring transactions take place, at the cost of helping to inform a better understanding of the organization as a whole—through information and listening to needs, wants and concerns—about business practices beyond products and services?

  5. I also enjoyed your thought-provoking post, Judy. (You ‘stole my thunder’, as I was about to post something very similar to my personal blog).

    So while I agree broadly with you and Tom, I’ll put in a plea for us to see the wider picture. Public relations functions in different ways across an organisation’s lifecycle.

    – Startups arguably need publicity more than they need anything else (even money).
    – Growing businesses then add in some more corporate PR functions such as employee comms.
    – Mature businesses employ the full range of PR, from publicity to public affairs via crisis comms.
    – Declining businesses no longer need much publicity, but they still have assets so the primary PR function becomes investor relations.

    This model works best for private sector business, but much of it applies to public sector and third sector organisations which arguably depend even more on public relations.

    So in this analysis, without publicity there may never be a need for fully-functioning corporate PR. It’s the easy-sell that gets the function noticed before the difficult work starts around organisational legitimacy.

    If we give up on owning publicity, then this only encourages those who claim it as ‘content marketing’.

    1. Richard, you have put it into context very clearly, and shown how publicity is really a part of the whole rather than a practice that should be separated. And I take Toni’s point about strategy vs. tactics – they also are frequently part of the same plan. Richard’s best point is that giving up publicity will only encourage those who can do ONLY that. It conjures up a mental image of a future scenario where professionals working on global strategic plans will be expected to outsource the “publicity” parts, possibly to publicists who bring their own, differently evolved point of view, thus jeopardizing coherency. I am persuaded.

    2. Richard, I hope you do a post of your own so that it gets the attention it deserves from the many students and practitioners who take notice when you articulate something.

      Thank you SO MUCH for adding to this conversation by pointing out that the age and complexity of an organization will often determine the most-needed roles, whether it comes from marketing or public relations. This makes so much sense. It also highlights where, when and even why consultancy PR is introduced versus in-house dedicated roles.

      It’s been said that the average company in the 21st-century will not survive to 15 years. (I read this in The Connected Company. In light of your thoughtful breakdown, it would appear that investor relations will more and more become a specialized area of communication. More sadly, it does speak to fewer fully functioning corporate PR departments. Unless, of course, the value of non-marketing communications becomes more understood and accepted and invested in. Perhaps this can be done by the business schools and a concentrated effort by PR associations.

      Finally, there is a definite backlash against content marketing going on. Maybe PR practitioners can “promote” the organizational narrative and more use of genuine subject experts into any resulting “content marketing” void….

  6. Love the ‘piffle’ term Judy and will use it myself. Thanks.

    We need to remember that until the fifties of the last century public relations in the western hemisphere was mostly formed by public affairs (lobbying, to be more precise) and media relations (publicity, both corporate and product).

    With the advent of the dominance of consumer marketing, television and the rest,, product publicity ‘took over’ and pr became a part of marketing.

    In fact, so much so that the role of public relations managers inside corporations quickly moved to ‘communication’ ‘external relations’ or ‘public affairs’ in order to distance themselves from public relations dominated by product publicity and marketing pr.

    I fully understand and concur with your ‘piffle’ and very much agree that product publicity (with new angles due to the digital environmnet) has only aggravated the pr.product publicity equation.

    But I do not agree with either Tom or Fraser that publicty should be separated from public relations, unless we move on to ‘stakeholder relations’ and include product publicity in this context, admitting that the equation between pr and publicity is too embedded to fight off.

    I also do not agree with the distinction Elizabeth draws between strategic and tactics. Both terms are in my view worn out. Product publlicists use the strategic buzz word even more than those public relators who are not mostly publicists.

    What is more, marketing, including product publicity, is more and more turning to the relationship with stakeholders side where communication is only the glue that reinforces those relationships and is also aggressively and successfully moving to the corporate side of the organization.

    To respond to your final question, I would hope that the term tactics will be used where appropriate (almost in every case) and that strategy will be used only when related to the ‘reflexive/reflective’ role (listening to stakeholders and society to interpret their expectations before the organization decides, when it decides and after it has decided) or to the ‘educative’ role (partnering with all other management functions to ensure they are able to effectively develop coherent relationships with their respective stakeholders).

    Thank you for this post.

    1. I’m glad you appreciate the piffle word, Toni. I will freely admit that I looked for a lesser-known word that might garner some attention, i.e., stand out, in this information-saturated world. But it also served to sum up my long-time irritation at conventional wisdom about what constitutes “traditional PR.”

      Just as I appreciated Tom Watson’s historical perspective, so do I yours, which is indeed more nuanced and reflective. Heather Yaxley argued along similar lines to yours when she did that post encouraging public relations practitioners to embrace their promotional role. This one: Public relations should embrace not deny its marketing links

      All of us have been agents for promotion/publicity at some point in our careers. I’m not denying that. What I’m railing against is to ONLY define ourselves in that light. I was going to introduce Sean Williams’ earlier articulations about how marketing has indeed learned from PR about telling stories and listening to stakeholders (although in their case, generally it’s just customers), etc., but happily he spoke up on his own.

      I very much like your descriptions about strategy relating to the reflexive/reflecting role, as well as the educative one. I will now add that to my knowledge base, together with the importance of internal communications and employees-as-stakeholders that you’ve taught me.

      In regards to your “new angles due to the digital environment,” were you aware that some marketers are appropriating internal communications to declare that all staff should be “employee brands” in social? In other words, no matter what you were hired to do in an organization, if you are active in social media you are expected to market the company. Piffle!

  7. Judy, you are so-o-o-o right! The lack of distinction between strategic public relations and what marketers/publicists (and what many others, alas!) call ‘PR’ still causes confusion. But it seems everyone owns the title. I remember a long and heated conversation on Tough Sledding a couple of years ago between blogger Bill Sledzik and a determined publicist who reserved the right to define public relations because that’s what he called what he did. Most serious strategists I know don’t want to call themselves something else because public relations is exactly what we do. But how do we get people as varied and influential as marketers (who influence schools of management), publicists (who influence journalists and consumers), and journalists (who influence everybody else) to drop the old ‘PR’ label? Oh, yes – and public relations consulting firms themselves, who need the consumer/brand business? My guess is it’s too ingrained to change. The only solution I see is a hiving off of the strategic practitioners, à la Tom Watson. Anybody got any nomenclature to suggest?

    P.S. for Suchitra: According to the Canadian Public Relations Society, which has, IMHO, one of the most precise and concise definitions in the world, “Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals and serve the public interest.”

    1. Hi Elizabeth, how nice to “see” you here on PR Conversations, a representative from one of the five countries (Canada gets two reps, including Fraser) participating in this conversation so far, which is incredibly gratifying.

      I asked Bill Sledzik if he remembered that discussion on his blog and he thought it was one of two—one was indeed a marketer known for having extreme opinions without much allowance for debate, the other was an academic who favours integrated marketing communications (for more noble reasons).

      I get so frustrated by marketers who claim they once “worked in PR,” when what they are referring to is an earlier, more-junior, period in their career (sometimes one of the first jobs they held) where they compiled the media clips first thing in the morning that mentioned their then-employer. They went on to do full-on consumer marketing—often at the senior level—but their concept and understanding of PR did not grow similarly, but remained at that very tactical and junior level.

      I agree that part of the problem is the MBA programs that graduate business leaders who only study marketing concepts, goals and measurement (such as KPIs). The late Art Yann (whom I continue to miss very much) did introduce and spearhead a PRSA initiative to get public relations studies introduced into American business school programs at the graduate level, but since his untimely passing it has become less visible—at least to me—how successful this has been.

      On a side note regarding Art, prior to taking on the senior-level role at PRSA he did have a great deal of experience and success (he won several prestigious awards) in consumer marketing. The difference between Art and so many others with marketing experience is that he recognized there are differences in strategy, goals and hoped-for outcomes between public relations and marketing much of the time. That is, he understood there is a difference in roles and responsibilities, although often there is crossover for specific campaigns and/or objectives.

      And yes, often those campaigns and objectives are outsourced to agencies under the banner of PR, but which are actually more marketing communications (marcomm). And that’s part of the how and why public relations is often declared to be simply a tactical arm of marketing, because that’s what many of those agencies focus on for billable hours.

      1. Further to comments about marketers’ influence over the perceived role of public relations in society, I recently completed a public relations course at university that was taught by a professional marketer whose knowledge of PR practice was zero insofar as I could tell.

        Our textbook for the course was highly skewed toward publicity-seeking practices as it was written by an agency practice leader (as so many of the teaching texts used to be). It is gratifying to see many more PR professionals earning advanced degrees and assuming teaching roles today.

        A clean sweep of non-PR teachers at the university level would help put us on the right track to achieving a more-informed public.

        1. Thanks for the comment, Natalie, and this is so true.

          The biggest challenge, of course, is that many schools (whether at the university or college level) lump in all kinds of communication together. And of course marketing communication (marcomm) tends to dominate, and it’s the “marketing” adjunct people who often get hired to bring in “industry” experience. I’m finding this particularly true for the continuing education “certificate” programs at universities.

          1. Certificates do not degrees make [read as Yoda], nor can a single certificate speak to one’s professional readiness. Not even a degree in PR can stand as testament to core capabilities, except as a testament to an individual’s level of commitment to follow a subject with at least some degree of interest and, importantly, the ability to accomplish a goal. Do you suppose certificates are to publicity what degrees are to public relations in that a certificate course in public relations might only scratch the surface of practice reality while a degree in PR more fully explores practice areas and the scope of responsibility of the practitioner?

          2. Natalie, after I completed my undergraduate degree (that I mention in this post), my plan was always to do a second BA (or possibly at the master’s level) in journalism. I had explored my options and had three universities in mind, with different programs (Ryerson, Carleton and/or Western–for the MA). But I decided to take a (financial/mental) break from school and work for a bit.

            During that first year of working full-time, I explored Ryerson’s journalism continuing education programs, and began a (part-time) certificate program in magazine journalism. It was excellent. Because Ryerson’s School of Journalism program and (adjunct) professors are so great (and recongized–probably more Canadian journalists have studied and graduated from that program than anywhere else in the country), I think the certificate programs are equally “mindfully” constructed. Not only were my six courses taught by working journalists (most of some reknown), but they often invited their peers in to the class to do a guest lecture. Or we toured facilities (for the Design and Layout course), etc.

            My university degree had taught me research and critical thinking, and my certificate program taught me solid skills in areas like copy editing, writing and editing/fact checking.

            Ergo, the quality of the certificate program and the language imparted will come back to the reputation and quality of the institution in question, as well as the people hired as program designers and instructors. (I’ve found the certificate programs in “social media” and/or “digital communications” to be rather suspect in terms of who has constructed them for a lot of the GTA-area colleges and universities–it seems like if you were an early adopter blogger and tweeter, you might get to teach a course, without the actual in-house authority of heading up an integrated communication effort that includes social or online aspects).

            You’ve taught in more than one college-level public relations programs, haven’t you? Perhaps you are in a better place to judge the calibre of the instructors and/or their knowledge about public relations, as a non-marketing discipline (or craft), whether in the full-time course or the part-time certificate programs.

          3. Judy, you knew you’d hear from me on this! I agree with you that the quality and content of certificates, diplomas and degrees depends largely on the institution offering them. One person’s certificate is another’s degree specialization. Unfortunately, we’re a long way from having predictable, comparable programs in public relations in Canada. We graduate thousands of young (or not) practitioners every year, but it’s hard to pick out the ones with strategic savvy. One more good reason to have CPRS’s PRK exam (shameless plug). Next sitting: January 25. I wish I could see a near future with cohesive nationwide education standards, but — not in my lifetime.

          4. I am aware of many excellent certificate programs available for the study of public relations, from single-subject certificates to PhDs. The certificate may be a route into PR practice, or an extension of a prior knowledge base, as in your case Judy. My only niggling reservation about certificate programs is the notion that a single-topic certificate, e.g. writing, media relations of social media, can prepare an individual to manage the public relations function. Not to say that graduates of such programs are somehow sub-par or incapable of management but rather to indicate that the profession demands a broad theoretical knowledge base. A commitment to lifelong learning is also necessary to succeed which, rather neatly, speaks to the utility of single-topic certificate courses as a relevant part of the PR education stream.

          5. I think Betsy, Natalie and I are all in agreement regarding institution and intent (and calibre of knowledge AND instruction in the courses, whatever format).

            To relate it back to the central thesis of my post, though, it’s rather frightening how many “certificate” courses are offered these days about “digital PR,” where it’s about the narrow version of (marketing) PR I outlined above. And it seems to be mainly consultancy (i.e., agency) people heading up these courses.

            The newest stereotype I am seeing is that digital PR revolves around building up online “communities.” That may work when it comes to marketing tactics (i.e., to sell some more products or services thanks to some “championing” and/or word-of-mouth), but these nebulous online communities are hardly going to do your company (or client) much good if it’s about a reputation management issue.

          6. Too true. I’m glad (and relieved!) to say that McGill’s new PD Certificate in Digital Media Management (due in September) will cover crisis and reputation management and other strategic issues, as well as “community management”.

  8. I couldn’t agree more with what you, Tom Watson and others have said, Judy. Separation is needed and each separate approach/worldview/role needs clearer and concise definitions.

    Where do you go with your ideas from here?


    1. Thanks, Fraser. I as one person can only do so much. Yesterday I was interviewed by a graduate student (for his capstone thesis); we talked about it, then. I am inspired to write posts, here or elsewhere. I speak up in social media when I see the sweeping assertions made.

      But that can bite you in the butt. For example, in a Google+ “community” someone posted a news release with the opening commentary that “this was not the usual PR.” (Meaning that it was good and interesting information.) When I took umbrage to his use of the term, one of the community moderator’s said that comments not pertinent to the topic may be deleted in future (i.e., censored).

      I must say, that made me lose interest in that community. I haven’t quit, but I have Muted the new posts.

  9. Hello Judy – loved the way you combined your Black Creek Pioneer Village experience with a topic that is close to your heart. Someday, when I visit Canada, this historical place will definitely be on my must-see list.

    From what I understood from all your posts, PR is building and sustaining the org’s reputation and increasing its visibility through a combination of tactical and strategic initiatives. Did I get that right ? How would you define PR in a sentence (I am sure you have already but I don’t remember the post where you did)

    Thanks for this great post.


    1. Thanks, Suchitra. It’s true that I can be inspired to write from some very disparate places. In addition to visiting BCPV, I recently did an extended interview with Kelly Hungerford of Small Rivers (, where she asked me what current terms being used drove me crazy–this was one of them!

      I see Betsy has provided you with the official CPRS definition (I did a post about it back when it was first introduced), but I also like to make use of Terry Flynn’s short-hand definition, “reputation, value and relationship building.” And, of course, when it comes to the social side of it, “relating the inside out….and by extension, the outside in.” And that relates to the culture and values of the organization, rather than what is the current product or service being hawked. (That’s why I am so fond of Jon Iwata’s “IBM on Brand” video.)

      Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Thanks to Rowena Calpito, supervisor, public relations, for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (of which Black Creek Pioneer Village is a part), who checked with one of the historic interpreters and provided me with the detailed description of the traditional English plum duff (a photo I added in today).

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