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?
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
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.
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.
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.