Is it public or publics? Is it communication or relationships? Is it media relations or is it stakeholder relationships? A candid confrontation with Jack O’Dwyer

In these days I have been exchanging some interesting views with Jack O’Dwyer. We respect each other but have different opinions. I asked Jack if he authorized me to post a part of out debate in order to stimulate other visitors from around the world to comment and/or criticize. Here we go:

Jack writes: Instead of being oriented to various audiences, PR should be speaking the truth and giving everyone the same facts. Marketing people love to break up the public into lots of pieces. It’s “divide and conquer.”….. ….As to the value of PR, you can’t just figure out salaries and multiply that by three (this is a reference to my economic impact paper for the IPR…se previous post..toni). You get too small a number. Information is of priceless value. A good placement can result in hundreds of millions in sales. One example is the Cabbage Patch dolls of the early 1980s. Dick Weiner got the dolls on TV and sales exploded. All he got was less than $100,000 for his efforts. A single fact can change your life. You can’t put a dollar value on information. The U.S. along with many other countries is willing to torture people to get a few facts. PR people today are frightened by the explosion of factual sources including blogs, social media, employees squealing like mad on their companies and reporting abuses in the marketplace (plus the legit press). This is a frightening time to be in PR. The press has exploded in size and influence and now the average citizen is pitching in. There’s no place for the secretive to hide any more.Toni replies: There is no public as such, there are many publics. Even if you wish to restrict the pr profession to media relations (and of course I do not go along with this..) each media has its own public, so there are always different publics, and journalists are the interpretative filters we in some instances relate with. Publics are those which are formed in order to induce consequences on an organization (public, private or social), or which form when an organization induces consequences on them. I prefer to use the term stakeholders to avoid the interpretation you (and many others) give to the term public…in relations, as if public relations was the opposite of private relations (or employee or internal relations, for that matter), whereas at its best it means relationships with publics. I also do not agree that pr should give everyone the same facts. This is in principle correct, but it must always be qualified by the fact that one of the major pr skills is to cater the same facts in a different way to each public (theoretically each individual… but with social media, always more possible), according to its specific expectations which must be analysed and scrutinized before…otherwise our job would only to be a wire service or a mail box… Furthermore you seem to be missing the most relevant of values public relations brings to an organization which is to listen to stakeholders in order to change the organization and not its communication….

…I do agree that the value of public relations differs greatly, but not that of the professional. Her/his value is similar to that of any other professional and economists tend to agree that this could be three times the gross annual cost. You see Jack, I have an organizational and systemic vision of the profession…i.e. even if I work for an actor or a politician I need to see my client as an organization. An organization is a complex web of relationships between those who participate in its activities and those who are called on or who decide to do so on their own. And this is where public relations comes in the picture in that it helps the organization improve its relationship systems with stakeholders. Communication is only a tool through which the organization relates with its stakeholders. Jack comes back: My large Webster’s Dictionary defines public as “The people as a whole.” The public is not divisible. The public votes for the president of the U.S., for instance, not publics. A lot of PR people use the word audience or audiences. With this talk of “licensing” and “publics,” PR is sliding backwards. It’s becoming very reactionary. We’re back to the Robber Barons of the early 1900’s (Worldcom, Enron, etc.). People don’t want “relationships” with companies they want the facts, the best prices, etc. PR people are communications “professionals” and as such should deal with other communications professionals in the press. It’s illegal for a lawyer to start pulling legalese or threatening or anything on a layperson. The lawyer must deal with another lawyer who is wise to all the shenanigans of lawyers and their lingo. Prize fighters who throw a punch in a bar can be hit with a felony and imprisoned. They’re only supposed to throw punches at other fights. Same with PR. Advertising’s job is to convince people while PR’s job is to convince reporters, a completely different job. Ivy Lee back in 1906 promised that the function of PR people was to answer the questions of the press “most cheerfully.” PR people should do this now that they have set themselves up as the only people in a company the press can deal with. PR is “public debate,” the highest thing someone can do in America. Our nation was founded on that principle. The debate is supposed to be “robust” because that’s how truth is arrived at. We have slid back to the English and European model where someone can be sued for libel and slander and their motives plumbed to see if they were “malicious.” Of course they were malicious. The saying in the U.S. used to be, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me.” This gives a lot of work to the lawyers.

PR and ad people trying to control “messages” today are engulfed by a tsunami of information from the media, which have exploded while PR cringes from media contact, the internet, blogs, e-mails, etc. Employees are ready to squeal to the press any infraction of their companies. This is a frightening time to be in PR. Of course, the worst example is Bush lying his way into the Iraq war, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and the U.S. a trillion dollars (in the end, at least that). And what do you think?

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7 Replies to “Is it public or publics? Is it communication or relationships? Is it media relations or is it stakeholder relationships? A candid confrontation with Jack O’Dwyer

  1. First of all, Happy new year to all co-bloggers.

    I appreciate Mr. O’Dwyer’s comments which are very interesting and perhaps very accurate for the reality in the United States, but my view is somewhat different. I find at least two important objections to that view that I would like to share.

    1. If we’d accept that PR is only about Media Relations we would be rulling out many concrete PR activities. For instance, how would you classify a strategy to raise students’ awareness of the need to recycle their school materials if this campaign would be done by means of a roadshow to all schools in a certain city distributing communication materials? I’m not confortable with associating advertising (which many people still confuse with publicity)to this kind of activities.

    2. On the other hand, if we’d accept (as Mr O’Dwyer proposes)that “advertising is direct contact with consumers or publics”, then any press meeting or press conference would entail an advertising function in order to suceed in achieving a PR outtake (“working through the filter of editors and exposure to the public square”). So in the end of the day we might be forced to accept that PR doesn’t really exist, that it all comes down to advertising. That’s clearly not a desirable conclusion.

    What do you think?

  2. Hi Joao:

    Welcome to the discussion!

    I continue to press my view that advertising is direct contact with consumers or publics if you wish and PR is working through the filter of editors and exposure to the public square. PR people ought not to define PR without the input of the press. What’s needed is joint, in-person meetings with press and PR people.

    The press is not going to let you make direct contact with your audiences without us horning in (I hope this U.S. idiom translates). Neither are the fast-breeding bloggers. These entities are going to play havoc with all your well-crafted strategies.

    Why are people turning their backs on media when they have exploded in size, variety and importance in recent years?!

    What’s needed to succeed in the public square is extensive subject knowledge, debating skills, being articulate and fast-on-your-feet because the media are traveling at blinding speed.


    Jack O’Dwyer

  3. Dear Co-bloggers,

    Congratulations for having brought up one of the most fundamental discussions in Public Relations. (Toni is right, and I guess none of us doubts, that PR is much more about relationships with publics that abou public relationships)

    Perhaps the most important thing we should agree about the use of the term “publics” or “stakeholders” in public relations is that we normally use them to identify groups of people. These groups possess certain capabilities, interests, knowledge or relationships and they produce what we might call(using a sociological language) social will. In other words, they are able (or at least potentially able) to influence (be influenced by) an organisation. To exert (or suffer) this influence they don’t need to come out in public (in fact, many PR problems are solved before developing into issues, i.e., before being brought out in the open by the media).

    So my view is that :

    Our fundamental variables, as PR professionals, are the publics'”capabilities, interests, knowledge or relationships”. In order to develop them, the publics need information;
    Our raw material is information and the core processes we use are communication and persuasion in order to make that information available and usable by the publics;

    If you agree with the following premisses, then perhaps you’ll agree that often the most effective way to persuade or inform someone is by DIRECT contact (either private, semi-public or non mediated by the mass media). I’m not neglecting the pivotal importance of the media as “the field where the games are played” (very good point by Mr. O’Dweyer), but we shouldn’t also believe that democracy is only about “communicating in public”.

    However, let’s not forget that “Publicity”, as the act of rendering something public, can be seen (as Kant proposed) as a universal human right that represents a moral principle. If decisions are afecting others, then they should be made aware of those decisions.

    I hope we can continue this discussion. Thanks.

  4. Hello Toni, Brian and others trading opinions on this site and Happy New Year!
    The highest functions of citizens in a democracy is communicating in public and voting. Our Founding Fathers wanted vigorous public discussion which is the way truth is arrived at. PR equals public debate in my opinion. It’s like the town square in the Middle Ages where farmers came in and provided information on robbers, what crops were growing well, the health of their livestock, the probity of the local knights and rulers, etc. You wouldn’t want to be caught providing false information in that setting.
    Talk of media relations or press relations not being the sole or most important activity of PR pros misses the point and criticizes the wrong thing. The media is full of experts who don’t work for the media. Criticizing the media is like criticizing football fields. The media are where the games are played. PR is supposed to affect public opinion and the public gets its opinions mostly from what appears in the media.
    If you want to sell something to a particular audience then that’s promotion, marketing, etc.
    The “public” is something very sacred in a democracy and not to be trivialized nor dismissed. Public service is the highest calling in a democracy and that’s how reporters picture themselves–public servants.
    Truth is so important these days and I doubt it was told prior to the Iraq invasion. The best you can do is assume the leaders of the Bush Administration were misinformed and uninformed. PR should be education rather than sales.

  5. According to the slang of the information technology market, Jack O’Dwyer is a “prominent industry analyst”, or – in human words – a person whose opinions affect the behavior of many people. All that said, I find a little bit frightening Jack’s opinion, because of its impact on the US PR industry.

  6. Toni and Jack should be locked in a huge cage and each given three bushels of ripe tomatoes.

    After a while, you’ll be arguing about whether it is catsup or ketchup, but you’ll be in business together.

    And you’re both wrong, and so, probably, is Nicola. About Apple, for sure. Maybe about this long tail stuff, too.

    I’m going back into journalism, or marketing, or sales promotion, or something undefined as of yet. I’ll be editing a special 8 page section, four times a year, in Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, and I’ll also keep doing what I define as PR, so I’ll see how I speak, as a PR man, and what I hear, as a journalist, and I’ll report back.

    Over 425,000 people will have a chance to read the words I write or gather together from marketers, advertisers and public relations people, and place around the ads.

    Right now, I’m building lists of people who can provide me with the info I need to write words to fit around the ads. Ten years ago, or perhaps 20, I would have known that I’d find qualified PR people, ready to help, with knowledge and authorization.

    Now I’m prediciting I’ll find characters with MBA degrees,unable to speak English, with titles that have “marketing” in them if I’m lucky, and nonsesne like “Industry Relationship Management” if I’m unlucky. What they say may sound like English, but it won’t parse.

    Jack and I have talked before about my view that his definition of PR — that media relations is the key — is too narrow, but I’m not about to accept thosuands of niches, thousands of publics, either.

    PR people are broad strokes people — journalists are not our audience, they are a conduit to our audience, or audiences with an s, and it really doesn’t matter whether we lump lots of people together, and drop the s at the end of audiences.

    It’s lots of people, with overlapping interests, the vast majority of the time.

    It’s way too easy to get tangled up in definitions, and forget the big picture. We’re bombers — I’m thinking about the military a lot lately because my son is an air cadet — and we are not army infantry with bayonets aimed at specific necks, one at a time.

    I used to work for a former British Army Commando — yes, I’ve been known to go in silently with the piano wire, too, but that’s only very rarely.

    More often than not, we’re pretty far up in the sky, and we’re strafing, or using blockbusters, or, if we happen to be working with the editor of some 800 circulation newsletter instead of me with my 425,000 plus daily circulation, we’re into pin-point surgical strikes. But not thousands of them.

    As for “relationships” with companies. Maybe, but rarely, and I’d be hardpressed to find someone with a relationship with Apple, the company, rather than individual Apple products, or, at best, a couple of people at an Apple dealership.

    I started my business 20 years ago with a Mac, and I’d love to have a new one. But its the computer, not the company, I’ll be relating to.

    My Starbucks relationship — and it’s a strong one, several times a day — is with the staff at one branch, and the comfortable chairs at several branches, and Tall, Bold, Black at them all. But it’s not with a company.

    Enough for now…


  7. 1.
    This time I agree with you 🙂 Public and publics are usefull simplification, because they are easy to handle. But if you give people the possibility to choose they will form thousands of niches… It is the theory of the long tail and it is what makes Amazon or Netflix or Rapshody so successful: take a look at and at

    People wants relationships with companies, at least with some of them: take a look at Apple…

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