Fifty shades of PR
In a recent PR Conversations post, Fraser Likely, said he didn’t “do” PR. Rather he advises on the management of PR functions. This is a shade of PR.
Similarly, the Melbourne Mandate indicates a shade: “The mandate of public relations is to build and sustain strong relationships between an organisation and its publics, and, in doing so, contribute to society.” Craig Pearce discusses “the serious side of public relations” – again a shade.
Some hues may seem rose tinted to some, possibly idealistic, or at least optimistic, about what PR involves. Arguments for dialogue, engagement, governance, sustainability and consideration of the public interest are important. But do they reflect the dominant shade of PR? Do they put other aspects of the PR palette in the shade?
PR is sometimes considered to be a black art. This suggests the darkest shade of propaganda – a deliberate approach to misleading or lying. In contrast, we have white propaganda, presenting a perspective which reflects an ‘innocent’ selection of specific information.
Such a dichotomy proposes a distinct disconnect between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ PR. This division is also seen in journalism, and has been noticeable in the post-Leveson debate in the UK. On the one side – reflecting an aureola of glory – the media is the fourth estate; guardians of the public interest and champions of investigative communication in the face of the powerful in society. On the other side – where the light doesn’t shine – journalists are scum, who harass and lie to get their stories. Or more benignly perhaps, but still in the dark, are the lazy content producers who simply regurgitate the messages fed to them by PR practitioners.
In the case of the media, it is argued that commercial pressures and the free-for-all online environment have driven down standards. In reality, journalism has always been a mix of different shades of ethical or professional practice – not necessarily reflecting a continuum of ‘goodness’ but a complicated reality of the world.
Within PR, the schism is between the noble symmetric communicator seeking the high ground and the sleazy publicist or press agent. Again, the aura of darkness is implied for those motivated (or pressurised) by the lure of money; who get their hands dirty as technicians – probably in that grubby world mixing with journalists.
Lightness is reserved for PR practitioners engaged in management duties. The more commercially minded are derided as unethical or ignorant by those with loftier ideals. My consideration of PR as a promotional industry rankled with some who mistook my observation of a changing society with dismissing PR as mere marketing.
I don’t think this distinction is helpful. We are all mired in the shaded area; the shades of grey. PR doesn’t always have a positive influence on society, but it can do. It isn’t necessarily practised with a moral purpose, and shouldn’t always advocate openness and mutual understanding. We live in complex and messy times and need to reflect and engage with that.
A partisan approach to relationship building and communications is not always problematic. It is okay – even natural – to seek to influence, persuade or promote a particular perspective. It isn’t extreme, but a justifiable shade of PR.
The vast majority of practitioners provide consultancy services or execute programmes rather than sit in an Ivory-shaded tower. Their work may well deliver beneficial impact and outcomes for their employers, even if it does not involve influencing organisational strategy. They enjoy their work and are proud to be a PR practitioner – and why not?.
So why is this valuable work often dismissed as not representing what PR should be? If it reflects what PR is, what PR does, and what organisations want/need it to be – and doesn’t directly harm society, shouldn’t that be acknowledged rather than criticised?
My preferred shade of PR is pragmatic. It is multi-coloured; reflecting many hues or chromatic stimuli. I see a colourful pattern created by an illuminating reflection of the many facets of public relations. More than anything it is dynamic and gets things done. Whether that means writing or organising, relationship building or fire-fighting, it reflects a vibrant tapestry of PR with many hues within its strands.
If we don’t reflect the myriad shades of PR in our appreciation of the occupation, we risk dismissing a critical issue affecting the majority of practitioners. That is the financial reward of what we do. The profitable returns on strategic counsel cannot be achieved if PR does not also earn a good living from delivering PR services. This means such activities need to be conceived and implemented to achieve benefits that are valued within organisations.
Current returns within the PR industry are pitiful. The commodity thinking of “content creation” focuses on outputs, and like counting press cuttings and futile calculations of AVE, this fails to argue for adequate investment, budgets and salaries for the PR function. How often do we hear that PR is free or cheap? That’s not a healthy shade.
Interns and graduates often work for no pay in return for practical experience, which sucks credibility in exchange for temporary profitability in the industry. If we don’t invest in young talent and their careers, they will leave PR to be the vestige of the fluffy and the inarticulate; the old-hacks or Z-graders. Promising the golden glow of well-paid management or consultancy roles is disingenuous. If we continue to highlight a pure shade of PR, our young practitioners face a leap across a colour wheel, which may be impossible to achieve.
We need a strong and respected production shade of PR, otherwise we face a future of poor pay, lacking in credibility and few career opportunities for the majority. It is not enough to focus on PR as a strategic function which is valued for its consultancy advice or crisis management competency. Where will the strategic thinkers and expert practitioners of the future come from if we do not champion and develop talent – especially the most brilliant shade – within and across the practice?
If we continue to see the promotional, or tactical, areas of PR as either junior, or less respectable, or part of marketing, the outcome will be increased outsourcing and delegation as a low cost service in return for buzz and likes. We will diminish further the return on PR itself.
We cannot and should not distinguish shades of PR by presenting a strategic approach in the light and the majority of practitioners in the dark.
Greater luminance will only result from embracing all shades of PR.