It is hard not to believe the PRSA’S #prdefined initiative has resulted in three proposed definitions supporting public relations as a profession. Any reference to persuasive or promotional aspects of the occupation have been filtered out in preference to the more status-oriented relationship perspective of PR. The end result will have an aspirational feel good factor, but will it reflect the reality of the experiences of many practitioners?
Possibly even more important, the tendency to distance from marketing, advertising or sales positions PR as lacking in commercial acumen. Instead, PR practitioners prefer to be seen to deal in ‘soft’ metrics as professional communicators competent primarily in interpersonal matters.
This isolationist stance also seems at odds with the increasing convergence in communications (channels, content, etc) that has been accelerated by the development of online and mobile technologies.
We live in world that is dominated by a promotional culture (to use Wernick‘s term). Indeed, public relations is arguably a cause and an outcome of the pluralistic society whereby values, ideas, interests and issues (let alone products and services) are all traded in a public sphere. My esteemed Bournemouth University colleague, Kevin Moloney, argued in 2000 that PR has prospered as a result of modern society’s “promotional mindset”. Even the critics of public relations rely on its techniques to promote their own work and anti-PR stance.
If we consider Wernick’s view (1991, p. 182) that promotion is “not defined by what it says but by what it does” and L’Etang’s (2006, p.147) observation that what PR does is “a relatively under-researched and unresolved area” then perhaps PR could be defined as a promotional industry.
In recent years, mainstream media has become increasingly involved in promotion. This is evident in the ‘churnalism‘ approach of journalists relying on ready-to-use materials and the use of social media to link to news stories that themselves are hyped as much as possible through other mainstream and online media.
The rise in celebrity – of those without much talent, high profile individuals and ‘brands’ as personalities – alongside the mega-spectacle (in politics, sports, entertainment, trials, reality television and so on) is pervasive in the media and public relations practice.
Charities and NGOs are involved in promoting their causes (as Judy Gombita and Madeline Lunny critiqued in respect of Pink Ribbons, Inc), whilst the public sector promotes certain behaviours and policies.
Indeed, any attempt to build mutually beneficial relationships or collaborate with publics or stakeholders has to start with someone promoting a position, which others can agree with, or counter with their own promotional messages. We are all selling something.
If you don’t accept this premise for PR – Wernick has a second perspective on promotion that is arguably relevant. He writes:
“A promotional message is a complex of significations which at once represents (moves in place of), advocates (moves on behalf of), and anticipates (moves ahead of) the circulating entity or entities to which it refers.” (p.182)
Our work serves to draw attention (to promote) by signifying organizations, products/services, ideas and individuals in particular ways. In generating compelling narrative, rather than seeing PR as a corrupting force or an idealistic profession, it is placed at the heart of media’s own promotional activities; whether that be traditional or online platforms.
Hughes (1960 p56) referred to “middle class occupations” seeking to achieve professional status in part for the social advancement of individuals “getting into an occupation of high prestige” and “the collective effort of an organized occupation to improve its place and increase its power, in relation to others”.
Ironically then, the search for prestige and power within professional recognition could negatively impact on PR’s ability to build social capital from the collaborative, relationship approach advocated in the PRSA definitions.
Perhaps we would be better served to be open about working in a promotional industry (not a profession) whereby our communicative actions are used to extract social capital from relationships. More honestly, PR practitioners could be viewed as cultural and economic intermediaries, building relationships to achieve both social and financial benefits.