Paying for the destruction of public relations


In 2001, a British installation artist, Michael Landy, won a commission for his work, Break Down, that involved the destruction of all his possessions as a reaction to the consumerist society.

Fifteen years later, as Davis has noted, promotional practice has become ubiquitous. It’s become the default activity of public communications reflecting a consumerist mindset even around serious issues. Consider three examples:


Today’s world seems increasingly reduced to a consumerist society way beyond the ownership – or destruction – of our possessions.

Indeed, barely a week seems to go by before someone is reported to have sold everything they own to travel the world, recording their adventures via vlogging, vining, instagramming, etc – with an eye on securing corporate sponsorship and online celebrity fame.

Take the “jilted bride” – a former PR executive – who “quit her job, sold her house…” and has a blog, is writing a novel, is shortlisted in the Top 10 Best Travel Blogs! #Cosmoblogawards.

But you don’t need to have any PR experience to be part of this hyper-consumerist, online, promotional world. Social media enables anyone to realise their value as an digital entrepreneur and self-publicist. Go-it-alone temporary/flexible personally-branded employment is but a few clicks away for those finding themselves out of work, needing additional income, or wanting to build a career outside the normal organisational routes. Unless you are the wrong side of the digital divide of course.

Where does public relations sit right now in this pay-to-play Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Public relations is not so much a professional occupation from this perspective, as it is a skill possessed by the average six year old. Or indeed, those robots busy scraping, connecting, auto-typing and adding their automated words and images to the ever busy online 24:7 global communications environment.

So perhaps it is not surprising that many within the public relations field have championed the PESO model. Finding the Shared media space increasingly cluttered by the creativity of activist campaigns, personal pronouncements and Stickman memes, it is hard to cut-through and show any value to clients for spending their money trying to generate likes through an ever expanding plethora of social media platforms and attribute these to website hits.

Online Owned media becomes the easy to control option – although who really seeks out a digital magazine or corporate video? The return on investment becomes questionable as organisations are faced within sky-high pay-to-play bills via Facebook, YouTube, apps, SEO and so forth.

Earned media – the ‘promotional’ strength of PR within a marketing mix – is struggling itself to gain traction, even with (or perhaps because of) the effect of “churnalism“.

Hence the rise in claims by PR consultants that their inherent skills are essential in delivering the Paid in PESO, that’s native advertising, social advertising or amplification, brand journalism, sponsored content, advertorials – pick your preferred approach.

Money can’t buy respect

Apparently Paid media is a New Age Model of PR (warning that’s a link to an agency’s promotional post!). It’s advocated as something that all PR practitioners must have in their toolkit, essential for influencer marketing and utilising our storytelling competencies.

I can’t help but feel that if in-house PR shifts its focus onto paid media, practitioners will miss out on the value of earning respect for our employers if those we communicate with are focused on securing our money. This route is unlikely to secure a reputation for the quality of our professional intellect either.

From an agency perspective, paid media delivers income through content production at a tactical level. Previously journalists have moved into PR, but now they can be recruited alongside videographers, photographers, copy writers, creatives, media buyers and digital designers into the big-budget marketing communications fold. Or perhaps there’s a jack-of-all-trades cheaper PR-led option on offer. Isn’t the temptation going to be always to ‘sell’ the story for money when you are making more this way than the pot-luck of earning coverage?

It also seems to me that if you have to pay for something, you’re missing out on the generosity of others, and in being generous yourself. When all we think about is WIIFM (what’s in it for me?), we forget to consider how we can be of assistance.

If we’re too busy promoting and being noisy, we fail to listen, learn and enjoy quiet space.

So what do I expect you to do?

If you’ve reached this far, you’ll know I’m feeling snarky about the state of PR affairs at the start of 2016. Let’s scrape off all the BS lying as crud on the surface of promotional communications. And that other lying as practised by brand representatives, politicians and too many organisations who appropriate social justice and social responsibility for marketing purposes.

Caring, sharing and genuinely looking to build relationships around things that concern us as human beings is too important to be simply packaged up for superficial or paid promotion.

You know, I don’t care if only three people read this blog, whether they choose to share it or not with their various social networks, or if they want to comment or move on to the next kitty-cat video. But I hope you leave with a thought or two – whether something you agree or disagree with – after spending a few moments in our advertising free online space.

Like Oscar-nominee, Tom Hardy and his long-forgotten MySpace profile, I’m not ashamed of our authentic blogging habitat here at PR Conversations.

For me, it’s a place where we can talk about ‘real’ public relations that is beyond, or beneath, the fluffy stuff, that can make a genuine difference in helping organisations achieve their goals whilst being respectful of the world in which we all need to live – alongside the robots of course.

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30 Replies to “Paying for the destruction of public relations

  1. I’ve started but not finished many a comment, Heather. Others kept adding layers to the discussion and for most of them (their points) my head nods in agreement.

    I think it is important to note at the front end that it is actually Edelman who introduced the concept of participating in Paid (as part of its “cloverleaf” mix, rather than the later PESO terminology). But Edelman (under the “great entrepreneur Richard” as Toni Muzi Falconi honours him) has always seen “PR” as being a part of the marketing mix. And by PR it is meant primarily to be media relations, now morphed into “social” media in a big way, too. And the deliberate shift in focus (cloverleaf, decidedly marketing communications for the most part) has meant that Edelman has gone from the largest “private agency” in the world, to simply being the largest agency in the world based on revenue.

    Of course Edelman is such a large operation that it can also specialize in areas such as crisis communication and cause marketing. And produce the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, a valued annual resource to many.

    So, what I will add to the discussion (based on my observations and beliefs) is that the consulting/agency world, big and small, have noted Edelman’s change in direction and HUGE success with it…which has led so many of them to think hard about how to increase their “offerings” of communications as a “commodity” to be sold, often under the (mislabelled) guise of “PR” (when what is really meant is “media–in multiple forms–relations”).

    Oh, and don’t forget marketing wanting to get control of regular employees, and turn them into a “marketing” tool (or commodity) for the business on social. Except let’s gloss over this blatant, self-serving tactic, and call them “employee ADVOCATES.” What does corporate communications (including specialized internal communications teams) or even HR know about how EFFECTIVE staff can be at helping to sell stuff…..

    And now the push to add Paid to the (online world) commodity mix—why should established advertising agencies get the digital share of the client pie, too? For that matter, pffttt to the in-house salespeople who want to try relationship building in social (“social sales”). The marcom agency folks want/need/will-be-better at the “selling funnel” too!

    (On a side note, I’ve always thought that what PR and sales do share is the focus on “relationships” rather than the product “placement” etc. Advertising may help or hinder how the relationship builds or goes south, but it won’t seal the actual deal or understanding.)

    A big part of the problem with “PR in the marketing mix” (as you phrased it, Heather) is that external agencies/consultants seem to believe they are automatically better/smarter than the in-house counterparts. If I had a dollar (even a Canadian one) for every time I saw an agency person talk about “educating” clients on things such as effective “PR” measurement I would be rich, if not similarly righteous. Especially when the so-called expertise comes down to how marcom efforts (certainly not “PR” or even “media relations”) impacts the sales funnel. Nothing about measurement of existing reputation, in terms of how the business is perceived (amongst a variety of stakeholders, not just “consumers”).

    And the same (increasingly) goes for the leadership of said firms: they are also “selling” their expertise/knowledge, primarily to the in-house decision makers.

    Now many of the smaller shop top dogs are setting up “professional development” direct offering programs whereby they “sell” via programming—usually online—their construct of a PESO for the WIN or online “community building” (you know, “build a community of fans so you don’t need the traditional media to praise you”) and so on. Based on a limited number of successes by that boutique agency, rather than on industry standards or best practices (although I know you aren’t fond of that phrase). Oh, and don’t forget the “crowdsourced” ebooks/whitepapers/blog posts that also help to bolster personal/agency opinions.

    Although I was going to get into my opinion of associations (very similar to yours), I think this comment is already too long (and rambling).

    What I do think is a solution to much of this direction (moving to Paid, underserved association members) is for the in-house people who make up the bulk of most associations to collectively say: This version of “public relations” that is being promoted by agencies and consultants, as well as by associations, does not reflect what we do in our daily work lives. Please focus on our real needs for professional development, instead of these “tactics” to assist in the “sales funnel.”

    Finally, in your discussion with Laura you mentioned engineers—saying it was a bit harder to pin down what exactly they do. When I questioned (Prof) Molly Shoichet (at a recent talk) about how common it was for a chemical engineer to get into medical research, she began her answer by saying: You have to remember that engineers like to solve problems.

    I ran this line by my nephew who is in his third year of engineering studies (focusing on civil engineering) and he quite liked it (agreed).

    So I think we need that short tagline remark, for PR. Not as involved as the three bazillion “definitions” but something that can cover off a lot of specific skills/knowledge in easy-to-understand words. How about:

    “We work to build strong relationships with the people and organizations that matter the most to our business and its ongoing success..”

    1. Judy – thanks for the comment. To précis your thinking and offer a response, I’d say that what we are seeing from many in the PR agency/consultancy/independent world is a need to readjust their business model and they see profit in integrated communications, albeit now repackaged. Where previously there was an argument of marketing encroachment into PR (which is where I see the tactical aspects of PR being utilised within campaigns), the idea now is that a paid approach encompassing advertising/sponsorship/seeding/etc is ‘integrated’ into the PR offering. Once you’ve ‘created’ this model, then it isn’t surprising to see the books, papers, training and so on as an additional revenue stream (or at the least, a promotional device) so that the clients believe it has credibility and hence sign up to it.

      Done well, I think that it is sensible to maximise the potential of a campaign and potentially make it work as hard as possible for an organisation (although saturation can have diminishing effect). But too often utilisation of every channel has become ubiquitous, without a really compelling idea and little follow through. So like advertising, the majority of the output is not only forgettable, but not even noticed.

      PESO has become like a formula that is applied regardless of the problem or opportunity to be addressed. To use the engineering analogy, what is important is the process of solving problems, not simply application of set solutions regardless of what the problem may be.

      I’m not surprised that engineers like the idea of themselves as problem solvers – the issue is that this isn’t a unique ‘tag’ as many occupations can be thought of as solving problems. Or to use a term I like, engineers, like PR people, are ‘change agents’.

      Actually, relationship building can be thought of as a strategy to solve – or indeed, avoid – problems applied by change agents. We may state that where engineers apply engineering principles to solving problems, we apply people (human relationship/communication) principles.

  2. Heather, for millions of SMEs to exist productively and profitably there needs to be a mass base to consume their output. Moreover, for them to grow in extent – that is the number of SMEs in business and the amount and diversity of what they produce – in anything but a zero sum game, the market needs to expand continually. Yes, the difference between us is that one of us advocates continuous progress and development and the other does not. Last, to say somebody is muddled is not patronizing. However, to purposely not have said so would have been patronizing. Neither is it rude.

    1. Paul – it is your opinion that my thinking is muddled. You write as if that is an undisputed fact – I found that patronising, and I’m sure I’m not the first or last to accuse you of being rude! But then Donald Trump doesn’t think he is rude either…

      Anyway – there’s a difference between an aggregated ‘mass base’ for the goods and services produced by millions of SMEs and the business strategy and communications/PR support they may need individually. It is your assertion that the planet needs continuous expansion of “the market” to demonstrate progress. Businesses come and go, products come and go, consumers come and go, markets expand and contract – the game is neither zero sum nor necessarily an upwards trajectory over time.

      My definition of progress and development isn’t just predicated on selling things – but then clearly I believe there are other measures by which advancement can be assessed, and you feel otherwise.

  3. Heather, your thinking is muddled. For instance, if an entrepreneur doesn’t produce something worth consuming he or she is useless. Production is for consumption or it has no purpose.

    So, yes, precisely: the aspiration for abundance, which presupposes mass consumption, is most definitely a progressive, forward looking perspective. That progress should be endless and without limit. Hence I see many many many reasons to be proud of our corporations and of our modern society’s achievements and potential. I also see much to worry about whenever our achievements and potential are denigrated routinely by the PR profession, which, unfortunately, is too often an echo chamber for trendy, destructive sentiments.

    As to noise, stop looking at the volume and take a close critical look at the content. Therein lies the key to generating effective communication that counters the soul destroying anti-corporate, anti-consumerist and anti-modern, anti-Western and self-hating barrage our paymasters face. Hence, unlike you, I say we need much more noise…but of the right sort. Put another way, PR and its clients don’t require meek barely audible church mouses but the confident Lion’s roar!

    1. I think we need to agree to disagree here Paul – as I dispute your patronising allegation that my thinking is muddled, and reject your vision of endless progress.

      Of course an entrepreneur needs customers but as 90% of businesses are small-medium enterprises (SMEs) and account for more than 50% of employment worldwide, it narrow thinking to see the world only in terms of mass consumption. Of course, some of SMEs have aspirations for mass market presence and that’s laudable. But not all businesses are looking for global domination or perpetual growth – so communicating with their stakeholder base may not require noisy, mass communications either.

      Noise is not something to be ignored as the cacophony impacts on people’s ability to attend to any communications – combine that with the mindlessness of most ‘content’ and good luck on getting any message through. We need to be able to reach the right people in the right way and talk with them in an appropriate manner. Sometimes that may require a roar, and other times a quiet tone. Regardless, I doubt being rude and patronising would be very effective.

  4. Money and the focus on it is the straw man or woman in this discussion. And meaning never came from affluence per se. The loss of meaning, though, does have a lot to do with with explaining the contempt for both modern society and mass consumption. This growing contempt – and self hate for the values that once made us great and which still inspires billions of the world’s poor – is closely linked and partly explains our moribund advanced economies. So sorry to say it, but I see Heather’s and Sean’s views as being part of the problem because they make virtues out of regression, which reinforces a climate which trashes corporate reputations and public ambition. There is something very decadent and backward about the “destruction of all his [Michael Landy’s] possessions as a reaction to the consumerist society”. This is the mentality that leads to ISIS…..

    Time to make PR part of the solution…

    1. Well Paul, mass consumption isn’t exactly a forward looking perspective is it? And in challenging the direction that PR/comms is heading, I’m looking for an alternative narrative than the PESO one. So I’m being progressive rather than your regressive attitude that big business (the 20th century model) and a publicity approach to communications offer the best, and only, option.

      You seem to see the world’s poor as being inspired only in their (potential) role as consumers, not as creators or entrepreneurs, not as a source of solutions to the problems they are facing, not as inspirational in themselves. Talk about ‘let them eat cake’!

      Of course, Landy was not changing the world – or even arguably making art. I wasn’t championing what he did as social activism. All he did was use a publicity-seeking approach to make a pretty weak point. Today, no-one would even notice someone destroying their property – we’re on an ever-escalating drive to generate more and more noise. What is reinforcing the climate that trashes corporate reputations and public ambition is a lack of effective communication from corporates and public figures. No wonder when their PR people are more interested in ‘storytelling’, ‘content generation’ etc.

      Surely we’re saying the same thing in respect of PR practitioners stepping away from the superficial and helping their clients get to grips with communicating the strategic issues they face and how they are part of the solution to bigger societal issues. I’m just not giving the powerful a free ride to being able to look good unless they mean it – and stop treating the rest of society as idiots.

  5. Paul – always a stimulating conversation when you get engaged.

    You write: “I say that the denigration of consumerism is a direct attack on A/ people’s aspiration for a better life B/ the effort of PR’s paymasters to provide for the ever expanding needs of the mass public. I maintain that too many PR pros don’t like their corporate clients or the public those clients serve. It is a very sad state of affairs. Our clients and the public deserve better.”

    A few reactions to these statements. I agree that billions around the world aspire to a better life, whether as simple as a desire to meet basic needs or to move to a better location, and many other improvements. And I agree that there are PR people who dislike corporate clients., or even the public. Someone I know well averred that the reason state socialism has failed is that people are “insufficiently evolved” to embrace it. Even the impulse to “do something” about “climate change” has at its heart a desire to stop industrialization in the less developed world (and roll it back in the more-developed world.)

    I believe, however, that these are somewhat different issues than living an examined life. The decline in the institutions of “modern” life have contributed to mass alienation (see Bowling Alone, for example), and the millennial generation’s desire for living a meaningful life, not just an affluent one (speaking broadly, of course), and even the well-documented axiom that money cannot buy happiness (witness the number of excessively wealthy people who aren’t happy people), suggest that material wealth isn’t the natural objective for all people.

    Certainly, money cannot buy happiness, but it removes the threats of starvation and homelessness. Whether the continued imperative to sell stuff is the singular purpose of public relations (it certainly is that of marketing) should be exposed as a lie. As you well know, over the years many of us have made exactly that point; we reject the reductivist view that only sales counts.

    Part of marketing is product development – exposing a business need and creating a product to fill it. Our modern consumer age has gone farther than that — promoting a need that does not exist naturally in order to sell the product that fills it. Some institutional mistrust is a consequence of that “created” need. Altering a product like yogurt to make it akin to a dessert but claiming that it’s still a “healthy” product, persuading people that daily hairwashing is crucial to cleanliness, or demanding a completely aseptic home environment are the fodder of corporate war stories in the effort to continually expand the consumer state.

    I have a friend who is a salesperson – it’s what he does, what he loves. He nearly doesn’t care what he sells — though his greatest success has come because of his strong identification with the company product and mission he has represented for several years. This is not fluff. He could make more money selling something else, but he examined his life and decided that a bigger house, or better car, or “nicer” clothes were largely irrelevant to his happiness. He’d like more time with his wife and son, and more relationships with friends. In short, he has his Maslow covered, which gives him the luxury to focus on “more meaningful” metrics of life success.

    The trend is moving ever more toward this friend’s view. We surely are on the hook to deliver value for our clients and organizations — but value need not be limited to only helping them sell yet another geegaw or frufru.


  6. Nope – you’ve not convinced me to buy your argument here Paul. I believe that those in PR who view the client as gullible enough to buy ‘crappy’ communications that treat the public as idiots who are influenced by some trite slogan or stunt (most of which are instantly forgettable if they are even noticed) are doing us all a disservice.

    I couldn’t care less if people want to eat, read, watch, own or otherwise consume mass market things – but I would like to think that society is able to offer more than a lowest common denominator and not treat some aspects of culture, life, etc as ‘above’ most people. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to read things that are challenging and stimulating, imaginative and uplifting rather than just the musings of Kanye West or the dumbed down simplification of what politicians are saying. No wonder we end up with a Trump if we don’t encourage and allow everyone to challenge more robustly the things in society that are unfair.

    Our grandparents aspired to better lives, not just owning more things. My grandmother wanted her sons to not have to work down the coalmine (the pit) and for my mum to go to grammar school. She wanted me to go to University not because this would mean I could buy more things but to benefit from education. She also wanted us to be happy, responsible people not like the selfish “entrepreneur” who doesn’t want to see those in society who are less well off:

    Like you, I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when we certainly did have opportunity to own more ‘stuff’ – and I was fortunate enough to use early computers for example. But I value much more than the money-side of my childhood and certainly don’t look back at what I never had…

    Why should it be patronising to see the public as aspiring to more than consuming more things? A better life certainly isn’t just about the things we own.

    Feel free to reflect on your life with regrets about what you never owned, or relishing your worldly goods. I do hope when that times come, people will be able to appreciate the advances society should be able to offer in healthcare and other meaningful matters. That means we need a better public relations to engage the public and our clients in discussion around relevant issues (end of life care, science education, funding of medical services and so on) rather than presenting them with only Facebook adverts and celebrity led nonsense.

  7. Sorry but I disagree. On our deathbeds – or in twighlight years- most of us would be entitled to think we should have bought a house or moved into a better one or to think that life would have been better had we been able to consume more airconditioning or more heating or owned a better car or consumed more or better medical drugs and care services. Most of us will have spent our lives working to better ourselves so that we could consume more and better essentials as well as more – which is equally important – nonessentials according to our whims. But the morally superior turn their noses up at those who they consider to be consuming ‘crap’ and at those who manufacture or provide it as a service: tabloids, for instance.

    I say that the denigration of consumerism is a direct attack on A/ people’s aspiration for a better life B/ the effort of PR’s paymasters to provide for the ever expanding needs of the mass public. I maintain that too many PR pros don’t like their corporate clients or the public those clients serve. It is a very sad state of affairs. Our clients and the public deserve better.

  8. The forgettable quotes from Davos certainly highlight how the world’s elite needs to seek out and hire a new set of insurgent PR advisers. But there is a related problem ….

    The assault on paid-for PR that promotes consumerism and commerce – which is plain in the above post – is the prejudice of the rich who fear the poor. Most of the world (by that I mean the vast majority) would love to become part of the mass consumerist society but lack the means to do so. Hence I counsel extreme caution when it comes to knocking consumerism or knocking PR’s role in forging a better more productive – and by that I mean the generation of more abundance and things to consume – world. The challenge for PR is how to help the likes of Japan to produce more goods profitably for the masses everywhere to consume. In short, I think we need to get real and cut the fluffy stuff if PR wants to be taken seriously.

    1. Paul – thanks for your comment.

      My objection is not to the promotion of consumerism or commerce as I certainly agree that everyone, regardless of where they live in the world, has the right to make the most of their labours and talents to improve their living conditions. I’m certainly not seeking to reflect any sense of rich, white, western entitlement in my views.

      However, I am not totally convinced that the only form of society that counts is a mass consumerist one. We don’t make a more productive world – and by that I mean more than simply generating things to consume – by only viewing the world through a financial or economic lens. On our deathbeds I doubt many of us think that we wish we’d bought more things.

      What I am objecting to in the post primarily is the commercialisation of all forms of communication – indeed, I’d go further and contend that all this does is seek to drown out other voices since only the powerful and wealthy end up controlling the agenda.

      I certainly don’t see objecting to over-commercialisation of communications as being fluffy. Indeed, I’d argue that far too much of what is being communicated through increasingly dumbed-down means is the fluffy stuff. It mistakes ‘creativity’ for originality in thinking.

      Much of what is facing the world is serious and we should not see the only solution as being about money. Of course money is important but surely it ought to be used for more useful purposes than a diamond-encrusted chess set (as per the image). We should be investing in education, human ingenuity and real sustainable businesses on a global basis. That’s where I see PR has a role within organisations, not in advising clients about paying for Facebook adverts and creating forgettable slogans and memes.

  9. Heather,

    You are wrong: more than three people have read your post, and yes I chuckled as I tweeted it. We are right into the thick of things. Should adapt or perish or should we stick to the quill on the fountain pen and PC have come along. Ultimately it;s the content that matters — and inevitably there are going to be many markets and arenas for content. A paradox is that trash sells — young teenage bloggers make millions per year promoting BS. To use your own analogy, your three readers might be the equivalent of shouting in the forest and getting your own echo back.

    My personal grief is the impending demise of journalism — robots and software can now apparently write better stories than humans. Humans are slower and cost more….and editors seem to be buying the hype and getting rid of journalists.

    1. Don – of course, my argument is predominantly about the trend towards viewing public relations almost exclusively in consumerist and/or commercial terms. I’m not averse to emerging communication methods, although I would argue there are times when a quill may still be a good choice. Indeed, long may the art of calligraphy continue!

      You sum up two issues – first in the “trash sells” reference. Of course, this is nothing new, and all sorts of means have been used over the years for marketing and other communicative purposes. We can look back to the classic PR stunts – with the circus literally drumming up an audience with its pre-opening parades and the creative ideas from Jim Moran and the like capturing newspaper headlines. Hollywood stars and celebrities have also been seen as ‘influencers’ whether helping to sell products or campaign for causes. Teenage vloggers probably fall into this domain although reflecting the marketing focus on ‘real people’ attributed commonly to the Dove campaigns.

      Although I think there are concerns about the ‘influence’ of the ‘trash sells’ approach to content (particularly when matched to a trusted channel or source), I also believe that most of the public aren’t easily fooled. The dangers are when organisations are happy to muddy the waters and vloggers and other communications content/channels shouldn’t be trusted. We can only hope that that organic communications doesn’t get drowned out by the paid-for and the credibility of the hucksters quickly evaporates.

      Of course, unlike this blog site, most communicators need to do more than shout into an empty forest. But I believe there are other options than the messy, mass-market nature of paid-for online communications where many PR people seem to be heading. To turn the analogy around – what’s the point of shouting in a busy pub where no-one hears you – or if they do hear you, find you annoying and little more than a quick laugh?

      Your second issue relates to this – the importance of credible journalism, which ideally needs to be independent, fearless and well-funded. The robots, hype, marketing/PR puff – and all the sponsored content and other detritus being communicated can only win as long as it is delivering on the objectives of the money-makers (and muck-rakers quite often) — and retain some interest and trust among those who hear them in the noisy bar…

      My hope is that much of the current focus on paying to circulate whatever content will get attention among the largest number of (gullible) people is a fad. Like the latest, over-full, trendy bar, maybe we’ll all get tired and return to where we can hear ourselves think and have better conversations.

      My fear is that it may be too late by the time people realise what we’re missing in more considered, trustworthy, valuable information and insight – which I’m happy to originate from within organisations as well as from third-parities. Much like the pub analogy – there’ll be no nice, quite, ‘authentic’ boozers left…

      1. Thanks Heather for an informative and educative response. I have shared across my networks, so we’re out of the woods of the PRC pub where intend to stay put 🙂

  10. I would hate to hear Bernie Sanders’ reaction to your final words in reply to Sean’s comment……. or, for that matter, also to Donald Trump’s assignment to the managerial chair.
    Heather, this post of yours is thoroughly and structurally provokative (with the k) and of course I like it and have shared it with friends, colleagues and students. The quality of comments and the discussion is also very high. Thank you

  11. Heather – I wish I could argue your point, but I cannot. As you well know, part of my ongoing crusade is to position public relations as primarily about strategic communication. We sit alongside Marketing, and can help drive sales at lower cost and arguably with better results than our advertising cousins.

    We alone, however, have the broader perspective to see across communication silos, linking the financial and nonfinancial business results organizations need. Promotion and publicity are not the only workstreams that PR supports. Earning the right to do business, building baseline understanding of organizational mission, values and principles, preparing a workforce for change, putting tactics into context of wider strategy == these all help the organization do business, even if it’s hard to enumerate the specific financial value of each.

    The co-opting of content into “content marketing” is part of this issue — a reductivist move that shifts us from the C-suite to the production line. Still, surely, an important place to be (can’t sell anything if you don’t make something), but it’s the reverse of the efforts we’ve largely succeeded at for years.

    In “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR” by Al and Laura Ries, the authors assume that earned attention will be much more effective over time than paid. They further claim that the ability to have honest conversations (echoing the Cluetrain) between publics and organizations will be more important than the news media.

    Instead, the marketers have morphed, moving into our space, but with their old tactics. Why do organizational leaders buy this? Because the only communication class they got in their MBA program was marketing/advertising. They have no frame of reference for a different way – everything looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer. Marketing budgets continue to soar, and as the social revolution was crushed under the wheels of the marketing wagon, social became just another tactic to push messages.

    Is it any wonder people are a bit turned off?

    1. Thank you Sean for your comment. I’ve always argued that one of the most important jobs for PR practitioners (in the broadest sense) is to educate internally. So yes, I agree with you over the limitations of many organisational leaders – but this also reflects poorly on PR practice. Surely that is only compounded by those who portray PR as part of marketing (by virtue of adopting PESO) from inside the tent?

      I think another major part of the issue is the ‘control’ word that Cluetrain raised in respect of online, but has always been relevant. Organisations – and particularly senior management – like to think they are in control (myth of the rational manager) and a marketing viewpoint feeds into that:

      If you can buy it, you can control it!
      If you can buy it, you can measure it!
      If you can buy it, you can value it!

      Relationships, reputation, intangibles, activists, qualitative, earned, etc etc – all far too fluffy, complicated, dangerous and uncontrollable. As the world becomes more chaotic, more diverse, more complex, more demanding of organisations – so many senior managers seem to crawl into their beds and demand predictability as a comfort blanket.

      Then it’s easy to pay lip service to triple bottom line reporting, CSR, employee engagement and so on by glossing it with the sugar of a marketing approach that is about spending money and control.

      Management become more like Donald Trump at a time when PR might seem ever more Bernie Sanders!

  12. Thanks for a great post Heather. It is an interesting state of affairs in our profession. For better or worse, paid PR is here. But it doesn’t have to mean destruction or be just about consumerism or promotion.

    Our competency is communications, and doing this (and doing it well) is getting much more complicated. The rise of social platforms, their growing importance, and also native makes getting your message in the right places more blatantly dollar-driven.

    So when we plan our campaigns, whether they are about improving the world, advocating, or yes, just marketing we should consider that a Facebook ad buy will help our message travel farther “organically” or that paying for an article may be worth it.

    1. Bob – thanks and I do understand your point. In some ways this is going full circle as advertising (and internal communications publications) used to be under the remit of PR (all commonly termed publicity) in first half of last century.

      It was arguably the growth of the Mad Men world of advertising from the 1950s and in the 1980s, the Human Resources movement that started the separation. Then since 1990s we’ve had the integrated debate, which has since escalated and been attributed to social media.

      I’m not averse to PR commissioning advertising or a piece of advertorial, my objection is much more the implications of the larger scale of this development. I get that the larger agencies all want a larger slice of the pie, and that the small ‘shops’ see this as added income. But these things rarely end well for PR.

      The same arguments were made for sponsorship, product placement, CSR, SEO, SM, etc, i.e. that the PR business should ‘own’ these. And there is/was a fit – yet, they’ve developed much more as separate functions or specialisms. Why should the already established advertising, media buying, and other commercial marketing and/or communication functions not roll the ‘storytellers’ into their offering more successfully than PR will ever be able to do more than tinker in the paid field?

      Increasingly I think that we need to grow our own field of expertise, which involves broader strategic corporate communications, and issues/crisis/reputation/relationship management. Whatever tactics we employ, whether inherent in our competencies or commissioned from other areas of expertise, without such a move, the PESO oriented practitioners run the risk of being gobbled up by those better and bigger at the marcomms practice. IMHO!

  13. Heather, is there a ‘innocent/virgin content’ myth here?

    Is there an assumption that an earned item of content is inherently purer than paid-for content?
    But does this require assuming a level playing field of content creation and dissemination.

    Is there not a reality of resource bias within earned content – where not all originators and deliverers of content are equal?

    I may be a highly skilled communicator, a highly respected source where by using my sophistry I am able to distort the value of a piece of Content: the more money you have the better quality of your Sophist. to argue your case.

    Is the way forward for all of us who care about this thing called ‘PR’not to focus on the ‘How?’ of PR – how it is delivered, but rather the ‘Why?’ – the fundamental first principles of the need for humans in society to manage how they co-operate and collaborate – that no man, or woman, is an island.

    Is this not a potential powerful touchstone, not just respectful of the world in which we all need to live, but also a world we can create through our actions?

    1. Andy – you of all people are aware of the dangers of ‘paid’ vs ‘earned’ media. This is muddy waters but that’s why I feel how is important alongside the why of any communications.

      Of course, money where it enhances influence dispropotionately can be problematic. But in terms of ‘innocence’ isn’t the question more one of conflicts of interest, and influence? Certainly transparency around any financial arrangement helps the buyer/reader beware. And of course, people aren’t stupid in knowing that support has often been provided. But whilst people may not expect professional restaurant or holiday reviews to be self-funded, they are looking foran honest review. That’s really what the reputation of a critic has been based upon. If however, there has been payment for that review, it should be transparent as advertising is. We can then make up our own minds about the validity or otherwise – and let’s remember that advertising claims are regulated to avoid false claims.

      I’m not convinced that money necessarily buys a better argument (but it can fund a ‘better’ story especially when journalists are increasingly impoverished in time and resources). There are certainly sectors of society who lack the the ability to be articulate. That’s the beauty of free and earned online communications – and the traditional societal perspectives of media (particularly local media) – where the underdog and those who support them can out manoeurvre many a professional communicator. For me that is PR – not just those who ply their trade to the highest payer.

      I don’t think you get rid of any inequities (owing to financial or social capital advantages for example) but encouraging more pay to play, but in ways that seem increasingly opaque. The how often reflects the why.

      I’m also concerned how the superficial presentation is increasingly replacing anything actually relevant that may be said. That’s the true danger of PR focusing more on a ‘branding/advertising’ approach rather than tackling difficult issues. If a paid for Tweet encouraged engagement within serious issues, it probably could be justified. But much of the seeding, brand journalism etc seems to clutter and confuse rather than illuminate.

  14. Integration of people, ethnicities, nationalities, ideas, education, economies and professional practices will only grow in intensity and purpose because it’s already underway. Adapt or perish, but work for ethical and least punishing results. The world has withstood wars, plagues, wrenching social disorder, political chaos — you name it, we’ve weathered it. Don’t give the forces of bigotry, ignorance and religious/ideological intolerance the upper hand.

    1. Thank you Don. Indeed, I believe that public relations can play a vital role in helping societies tackle and adapt to such challenges. But it won’t do so by simply deploying shiny and superficial tactics that clutter the very communication channels that ought to constitute a public sphere not a marketing space. Otherwise only the rich and powerful get to build a world that continues to suit their interests – where riches and power could and should be more equally distributed in a fair and ethical society.

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece, Heather. I was having this discussion with a colleague just the other day, so you’re not alone.

    Somewhere along the line PR and publicity became interchangeable. The notion that PR should be ‘public centred’ and the importance of building and maintaining relationships seem to have fallen by the wayside.

    Unfortunately, PR is still the land of smoke and mirrors. Few people outside the profession understand what we do. With over 400 definitions and counting, telling someone that you work in PR does not produce the same level of understanding as telling them you’re a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. Some argue that it’s a multifaceted profession, however most doctors, lawyers and accountants would say the same.

    Add to the mix the fact that some PR professionals mistake the part for the whole (usually their part) and you have a recipe for confusion. Not long ago I attended a forum on the future of public relations. I left at the end of the session with alarm bells ringing in my head and the distinct impression that it had been a pointless exercise in some ways because there was no shared understanding of what PR is, let alone what it should be.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do think it’s a conversation we have to have. Perhaps it’s the industry associations that need to step up to the plate and take the lead. If this debate remains confined to academia and the ‘sophisticates in our profession’, I doubt it will produce an outcome.

    1. Laura – thank you for your thoughts. I like the term ‘public relations’ and do argue it is multifaceted. I suppose the thing with being a doctor, lawyer – or an engineer, scientist, etc – is that these occupations have a core that accommodates their kaleidoscopic nature. The challenge there is to ensure a stereotype allows for understanding that not all doctors are the same type of people doing the same type of job – but broadly they are in the medical field.

      Perhaps our problem relates to public relations being amorphous – a doctor practices medicine, a lawyer practices law, a scientist practices science and/or employs scientific methods. This allows for change and still has some clarity. Engineering is perhaps trickier although it involves (as I understand it) the application of scientific principles in design, construction or use of systems, that can be qualified as mechanical, electrical, etc.

      What do we practice? What is our unique area of expertise and offering? I’m not convinced the industry associations are best placed to lead on clarifying this as they tend not to have much breadth of view i.e. they commonly don’t include the academia, scholars or sophisticates. I feel many such bodies have become promotional vehicles for select members IMHO and fail to challenge the practice beyond modernising a skill base or claiming the status of a profession through training courses etc.

      I’ve been reading about ‘professional services’ recently and wonder why PR isn’t positioned more in that domain rather than as a ‘profession’ or management function. Indeed, Judy Gombita argues many consultants position PR as a commodity to be sold.

      I also wonder if we shouldn’t be looking at alliances away from marketing to understand what we do more as applied behavioural sciences or psychosociology – as problem solvers and agents of change within organisations, communities and wider society. Perhaps as the specialists in communicative human relations. If that’s not all too fancy and academic!

      Coming back to definitions though, it seems as if there is deliberate obfuscation these days, with words and phrases created or re-defined by those who have something they wish to sell. Although that can be found a century ago as Mencken in his scientific enquiry of the American language viewed Bernays’ use of ‘public relations counsel’ in 1920 as a euphemism: “A press agent is now called a publicist, a press representative, or a counsel on public relations, just as a realtor and mortician are used for real estate man and undertaker”.

      In the second edition of his book a year later, Mencken observes a general American tendency to “gloss menial occupations with sonorous names”. And in 1941, the forgotten publicist, Constance Hope wrote: “The publicist, as a general rule, makes more money than the press agent, but the Public Relations Counsel is rich like anything”.

      Maybe it is all about the money – although I’m sure you and I feel that there’s more to the value of public relations than that…

  16. There’s a paradox with PR’s use of Paid-for.

    At worst it represents a lazy form of content engagement: don’t worry about it’s inherent news or interest value, paying for the space will give you the exposure you crave.

    On the other hand Paid-for can be used in an intelligent strategy of seeding Content to create traction for wider transmission and engagement.

    Hence, perhaps this is the cause of Heather’s infuriation: Paid-for can either be the slothful or the sophisticated tool of communicators.

    Hope good thinking PR will support the likes of Heather in being vigilant in supporting the sophisticates in our profession.

    1. Thank you Andy for your comment. I do see the paradox – but I’m not sure I see a strategy of seeding content as sophisticated or intelligent, if by that, you mean paying to get content seen by buying likes or paying bloggers and other site owners. The first seems unethical and the second is advertising and should be clearly labelled as such.

      I’m not arguing against creativity or a need for decent budgets for public relations if used for promotional purposes. After all, there’s been a pound or two spent today by Land Rover to commemorate the last Defender rolling off the production line. But this money hasn’t been used to buy media coverage directly. It is just a good story that has earned its extensive coverage through creating an event and leg-work to maximise media relationships. Even more importantly, it has been managed to engage and celebrate with employees and other stakeholders (dealers, suppliers, fans/customers, etc).

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