Public relations as a promotional industry

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.

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55 Replies to “Public relations as a promotional industry

  1. Heather, Don, yes reading the piece to the end (something I was loathe to do after reading the quote I pasted above) it becomes quite clear that the piece is not written by Wernick. Moreover, the review of Wernick’s work interests me enough to want to read more. My gut says there is some good insight to be fathomed from reading him.

    1. OK. It is a review of three different books. Fancy a journal of communication with I assume a long time to proofread articles making such a rudimentary mistake. Layout and design are aspects of newspaper and magazine communication.

  2. The presentation is confusing, but when you read the piece in full, it clearly isn’t written by Wernick and by a process of deduction Beth Seaton appears to be the one who published and wrote the piece.

  3. Thanks. I made an error. I was mislead by Wernick’s name being under the headline as if it were the byline. I’m assuming now that Beth Seaton wrote the piece..but it’s still not clear really.

  4. Heather: Is there something I am missing? Yes there is a line above: Home>Vol 20, No1 (1995)> Beth Seaton, then there is heading in bold : ” Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression.” with Andrew Wernick under it. Do you interpret this to mean that she is jus paraphrasing Wernic?

    1. Josh Greenberg has been involved (as editor and regular contributor) to the Canadian Journal of Communication for many years (he’s working on a special PR-specific issue); although I doubt he was involved in 1995, perhaps he could clarify.

  5. Paul – that quote and the piece itself isn’t from Wernick, it is a review of three books (one of which is Wernick’s) by someone called Beth Seaton (her name is at the top). I found this on her: Beth Seaton has recently left the comforts of a tenured position at York University, where she was faculty in the Communication Studies Programme and the Graduate Programme in Communication and Culture, and has returned to her home in British Columbia, Canada. She is Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Relations at the University of British Columbia and is teaching at UBC and Simon Fraser University. Her numerous publications investigate not only the discursive and disciplinary embodiments of social identity, but engage non-representational considerations (such as affect) as well. So she is responsible at least in this piece for the Seaman sin of ‘rot’!

  6. Don, Wernick appears to be a Gramsci-style postmodernist Marxist of sorts talking rot about capitalist social relations and modern culture. I lifted this gem from his piece:

    “The business of concealing the relations of social power through the revelations of symbolic mediation is the purview of commodity fetishism, a subject which serves as the structuring problematic for Sut Jhally’s The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society. While analyses of commodity fetishism often suffer from their own obfuscating rhetorics, Jhally takes great pains to contextualize and historicize the symbolic dimensions of consumer goods.”


  7. Thanks everyone for the comments coming thick and fast yesterday. Amazing to see how my initial post had gone from considering PR as a promotional industry (rather than a profession) with a suggestion of practitioners as cultural and economic intermediaries involved in extracting social capital, all the way to ancient and modern Greek democracy. On the PR and democracy front, I’m reminded of two views that we use in reflecting on PR in teaching – that’s Vercic’s opinion that “PR is the essence of a free society, market economy and political democracy” compared with Stauber & Rampton’s critical quote: “PR is to democracy as prostitution is to sex.” Take your pick!

    To give some context to my original post, I was asked to write a chapter in a book called: Promotional Culture and Convergence: Consumers, Markets, Methods and Media (which I’m finishing up in the next couple of days). My chapter is to provide a PR perspective as a ‘specific promotional industry’ within the context of what the brief identifies as PR was ‘specialised and limited’ and is now ‘a highly creative and influential tool’. After clarifying that it was okay for me to challenge this perspective of PR, I began reading further on the concept of promotional culture and why this influenced a view of PR as a promotional industry.

    That has taken me into areas such as the ‘production of celebrity’ and ‘media spectacles’ along with L’Etang’s interesting reflections on PR in sport, infoentertainment and the growth of PR as a result of an increasingly pluralistic and communicative society.

    I started with a very purist-PR perspective but began to realise that we continue to do a disservice to the promotional aspects of PR by either seeking distance or being defensive about the reductionist perspective. It struck me as reflective of the ongoing manager-technician model and academic-practice or professional or not debates which in seeking to raise the status of PR, end up downplaying everyday experiences of working in PR. I’ve always believed that the same underpinnings that inform marketing practice (from segmentation to psychology, group behaviour to ethics via culture, diffusion of innovation and exchange/communal relationships) have relevance in PR and by using the insight from using such models we can demonstrate the strategic value of PR in achieving a wide range of strategic organisational objectives – including those generating economic capital (call them sales/marketing if you wish).

    The concept of modern society as a promotional culture also began to seep into my everyday experiences. Even yesterday on a trip by train into London, it was noticeable first that the majority of people on my first train were promoting a particular football club – they were personally branded in their chosen team’s shirts. In my bag was L’Etang’s paper on promotional culture, PR and sport. Fascinating connection between the two. My second stop was Stratford in East London – where sport and promotion are coalescing big time. This is the venue for the Olympics and already there is a huge amount of promotion from the London government, sponsors, organising bodies and so on. But the crowds on the station were there for the Westfield shopping centre which has undoubtedly opened here because of the regeneration, opportunities and legacy resulting from the Olympics raising the profile (promoting) this part of London.

    Talk about promotional culture – Sunday isn’t a day of rest, but one experienced through the double spectacles of sport and retail therapy. There isn’t an inch of either that isn’t branded in some way – and PR in various forms has contributed to, and been influenced by, this cultural shift. Ironically I had watched a 1967 movie (black and white) one night last week which struck me by how little branding was in it (a scene in Wimpy bar – Britain’s answer to McD in those days – was less branded than my own kitchen is).

    I really do think that as PR practitioners whose work is part of, and affect by, cultural issues, we should engage more with the impact of the increasingly promotional nature of modern culture. I’m not saying it is a good thing, or that I necessarily like it – or that it is entirely a new phenomenon (as reference to Barnum testifies), but it is there. Citizens have been turned into consumers. The Adam Curtis Century of the Self documentary includes the quote attributed to Hoover in addressing PR and advertising men:
    “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

    Given this is the case – and not just in the ‘developed’ Western world, but increasingly across the planet, then surely it is worth reflecting that PR is a promotional industry, we are promotional workers and we operate in a global promotional culture.

    Even if we do believe that PR can be, and should be, the profession that is evident in the definitions proposed by PRSA and other bodies – we have to recognise that this is within a world where promotion dominates and where we may not be aware of the symbolic expression that is tied up in our communicational activities.

    Anyway – if I’ve stimulated anyone to read Andrew Wernick’s work that would be great – BTW, he is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and Sociology at Trent University in Canada ( – I’m off to see if I’ll connect with me via LinkedIn!

  8. Silly me, Paul Seaman. I guess I thought that a Harvard-educated person who has worked for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Sky News, etc., currently based in Athens with a Greek-sounding surname might actually know what she is writing about for the Los Angeles Times (picked up by the Globe and Mail).

  9. I’m not interested who wrote the piece, I’m more interested in the what was said in it. And it was backward. And if similar arguments were made about South Africa and its experience the piece and author would be condemned far and wide as racist. We have all been diminished by what has happened in Greece and Italy.

  10. Judy, thanks. I don’t know what you think, but I can’t agree with the piece’s premise that modern Greeks are too immature to understand what democracy is about. The author perhaps makes the same argument about Italy and Italians to explain the rise of the technocrats there. People used to say the same about Blacks in South Africa and Egyptians in Egypt…

    Moreover, if I read The Economist and FT correctly, the solution being imposed on Greece will make things worse, not better.

    1. The LinkedIn profile for the author, Paul:

      Anthee Carassava

      Experienced journalist with CNN, The NYTimes & TIME for 18 yrs. She now writes for the Los Angeles Times

      Location: Greece



      * Journalist at Los Angeles Times
      * Journalist at Sky News


      * Athens correspondent at The New York Times
      * Journalist at CNN
      * Athens correspondent at Time Magazine


      * Harvard University
      * Pierce College
      * Union College

    1. Now those are pretty angry and negatively enabled stakeholders. How does one “promote” peaceful dialogue with them? The answer is that this is no longer a comms issue and since Paul has already declared that democracy is abolished at least for the next twenty years, we must look to higher deity for a solution. Aren’t civilizations supposed to collapse and rise again? At least there is a historical precedence in Greece.

      1. That is yet another comment I would Like or +1 Don…..! Thank you for making me laugh out loud today.

        I shall promote you as both a critical thinker and a comedian. 🙂

        1. Given the high esteem in which both Heather and Paul hold PT Barnum, I have no choice but to reluctantly accept your induction into this honourable club. I however do not have any plans to establish a travelling media circus in my retirement years.

          On a more serious note, I did read a bit about the said Barnum after having been chastised by Heather and Paul. He was quite a character who contributed generously to various causes (early corporate social responsibility). He also argued that too much work and little entertainment was bad for the working population. Of course all this was to promote his shows.

  11. Jean, I can hardly think of a more stage-managed PR-driven phenomenon than managing statistics; unless it is announcing the results of surveys. Of course, many of the statistics that governments produce are of great public importance and very much in the public interest to compile and release. That’s precisely why they are tightly controlled; particularly when it comes to explaining what they mean (I used to issue national UK savings and loans figures every month that were as important and as closely followed as Bank of England statistics…so I know what it means to manage market sensitive data).

    And don’t government-funded research-granting bodies (rightly) promote what they do to show how wisely the government is spending taxpayer money; isn’t that why they employ PRs (or am I missing something?).

    As to the role of civil servants and relationships – civil servants manage process, not content or policy. Ministers decide; officials advise etc…unless your name is Sir Humphrey (a fictional sitcom character in UK). If the Tories were to decide to close down the NHS – that would be that; there’d be no long term relationships to manage etc..

    Your argument about PRs who don’t promote anything is specious. Strategy is all about managing the team to produce and promote something….

  12. Heather and Paul,

    I doubt very much that civil servants who work for example at Statistics Canada-our national statistic bureau- or at various research granting agencies in government consider their work as promotion. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they do need to promote partcipation in the census for example, but most times they stick to issuing basic facts and let others actors in the political process interpret and promote particular points of view.

    Issuing news releases about the inflation rate and economic indexes or census information, or explaining the results of reserarch initiatives can hardly be called promotion. There are many comms officers who work at arm’s length government agencies that would beg to differ. And I don’t think they are in a different profession.

    If your argument is that the outcome is a better informed population and that in turn promotes good policy choices and transparency in democracy, I think that is stretching a point.

    True, providing information is not knowlege, nor is it done without context but there are times when the specific application of our profession is not engaged in promotion.Issuing that news release about census results is done in a context for sure, but it is not to promote or influence any particular point of view.
    Government comms officers are not always involved in promoting compliance or adopting a certain course of action. Sometimes we are. Not always and I don’t see how simply providing information or editing a document, adpating it for the web, ensuring plain language is used in thousands of documents and reports is promotion. And I do understand that we are all buiding a cathedral, not just laying bricks. My point is simply that not all PR functions involve promotion either as a strategy or as an outcome of our work.
    Using communication is a process that can be used as a tactic to promote, inform, persuade, change behaviour etc. There are times when our communication tactic will be advertising or promotion through slogans, exhbits what have you. It is also a very strategic process that can be used to engage in dialogue with stakeholders.

    To Paul’s assertion that only politicians are involved in relationship building I would most emphaticaly disagree. Politicians engage in short term relationships that ebb and flow depending on who is in power or in opposition. It is civil servants who have a long view of things and pursue long term relationships with interest groups, academics, researchers and ordinary citizens through formal and informal consultation efforts and ongoing dialogue. That is our job. Politicians will set a course and we follow it but basic fact gathering and analysis is done by civil servants. We also conduct public opinion reseearch that informs our advice to ministers on both policy and communications matters.

    1. Jean, I remember the first time I met you (in person) was at the 2008 CPRS conference in [correction] Halifax. I also remember how often you had to pull yourself away from the conference and/or networking events because of some crisis (I think it was in Vancouver), having to do with border issues (although I can’t remember what it was, specifically).

      I believe your involvement was communication counsel (specifically regarding media relations in this instance), certainly not something “promotional.”

  13. Quite right, Don.

    I’d add that if one was a PR at the Greek treasury a few years ago the public interest and truth telling would not have been what’s called for. Otherwise the PR would have had to say “our government is pursuing a ruinous borrow and spend policy” (it was quite clear that was so before it all went wrong). Moreover, every other PR working in the state sector would have had to say the same about health, education etc.. No. Their duty was to explain/promote and advocate as best they could their employers’ dire policies… or look for another job.

    Today, Greek PRs working for the government are having to explain as best they can why Greek public opinion and Greek stakeholders no longer matter in the wider scheme of things and why democracy has been abolished accordingly…for around the next twenty years at least.

    The public interest and relationship building are not the primary concerns of PRs working in the state sector…. they are servants and that role and that ethos of nonpartisan public duty and loyalty to elected officials (technocrats, too) who represent the people (who are their paymasters) is what serves the public interest most….and not much more is required or expected of them. Hence one can’t blame Greek PRs for not speaking up about what must have been increasingly obvious to insiders…

    1. Ironically as you point out, Paul, democracy has been abolished in the very land of its origin.

      Luckily the tasks you outline above – keeping govt in check isn’t that demanding in an advanced ( not old) democracy. An activist (loyal) opposition, the media and a range of public bodies, ranging from labour unions and employer organizations take care of that.

      In addition independent public think tanks would have raised alarm bells would have sounded alarm bells long before the situation got as dire as it did in Greece.

  14. Jean, information is not knowledge. Awareness requires conceptualization.

    You can’t present or frame information meaningfully without promoting something or without having the intention of persuading somebody about something or without arranging the facts into a pattern designed to serve a particular purpose.

    Moreover, the whole point of a civil service – even of its communicators – is that it is not responsible for relationship building – that’s the role of politicians in a democracy. Civil servants are disinterested. That’s why you keep your job when they lose theirs. But meanwhile you promote what your masters tell you to promote – within reason of course.

    1. Just to add to the distinction of information and knowledge and ultimately wisdom:

      According to Russell Ackoff, a systems theorist and professor of organizational change, the content of the human mind can be classified into five categories:

      1. Data: symbols

      2. Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to “who”, “what”, “where”, and “when” questions

      3. Knowledge: application of data and information; answers “how” questions

      4. Understanding: appreciation of “why”

      5. Wisdom: evaluated understanding.

      Ackoff indicates that the first four categories relate to the past; they deal with what has been or what is known. Only the fifth category, wisdom, deals with the future because it incorporates vision and design. With wisdom, people can create the future rather than just grasp the present and past. But achieving wisdom isn’t easy; people must move successively through the other categories.

      According to him data is raw. It simply exists and has no significance beyond its existence (in and of itself). It can exist in any form, usable or not. It does not have meaning of itself. In computer parlance, a spreadsheet generally starts out by holding data.

      PRs job is to collect data, interpret and contextualise it and hopefully make an organization’s stakeholders understand and be knowledgeable about the organization’s position. Ideally this should lead to the stakeholders supporting the organization’s objectives. But this is not a given.

      In promotion terms PR promotes the understanding of the organization’s long, medium and short term goals and seeks support from key enabling stakeholders.

  15. It’s as I’ve said all along: Public relations is defined by its practice, and PR is what PR people do.
    Perhaps things will come full circle and we’ll be back to a sharp delineation between promotion (publicity, marketing PR) and Public Relations (cap PR). Perhaps not, as it all merges into a dog’s dinner of social media, product placement, branding, reputation, and the like.
    And BTW, not all marketing is communication. The extensive data mining that is going on today is marketing, but it certainly isn’t communication.

    1. Bill – I’ve also used the definition – PR is what PR does – as I feel this has to be the starting point rather than a more idealistic (or best case) position as is evident in most definitions. I suppose what I’m trying to argue is that Public Relations (capital letters) reflects a promotional industry (not that it is simply a promotional tactic) and that ‘marketing PR’ should be within the tent operating as a strategic, effective and acknowledged facet of the function. If it does get sliced off and PR becomes only the counsel part, then the management consultants can gobble that up and the marketing agencies will probably subsume or outsource the rest. Social media only emphasises the futility in the distance we create between PR, marketing and so on. As I wrote on Judy’s Windmill Networking post: – I don’t think you can separate out promotion from reputation.

  16. Heather, As usual you lay out a good case for an important aspect of public relations. However my entire career in government would not fit a definition that favoured, or singled out, promotion as one of its key areas. And I would not be alone. There are over 4.000 civil servants in Canada who would take issue with being lumped in with the promotional crowd.

    The problem is that some of us who toiled in the civil service did promotion work because our job was to market certain service to citizens programs. In many respects those were the fun jobs where you work on advertising campaigns such as the launch of new online services, H1N1 vaccination campaigns and the like. The vast majority of those 4,000 people did not work on promotion. And I do not include politicos in that count- they are not civil servants. They DO promote almost exclusively, persuade a ton and sometimes distort or spin profusely.

    As a key adviser to politicos for most of my career, I often had to explain to minister’s office staff where the line was between apolitical civil servants and their own relationships with media, stakeholder groups, and members of the public. Our job is to explain and inform publics about often complex programs and policy areas. Political staff can sell or promote a change in policy- most civil servants won’t promote policy changes or political ideology.

    We faced this dilemma when CPRS asked us to define PR and decided that singling out one aspect of the work we do is not helpful. We all use communication as a process to achieve results. Sometimes that takes the form of promotion; other times not. In my experience, I explained and informed publics by publishing brochures on government programs, worked on web sites, media monitoring, analysis, wrote news releases and planned events, developed plans and strategies. Most of which would not fit the definition of promotion.

    We work in a profession that has multiple facets where the generic principle is: use communication to build and maintain relationships, engage in dialogue and the specific applications are so numerous and variable that we tend to get lost in that sea of specifics. The sum of these specifics often defines us and what we do but the overall objective should be clear.

    1. Jean,

      Thank you for your comment. I am not surprised that those working in the government area may not wish to be associated with promotion as a concept, but that doesn’t mean their work does not reflect the promotional culture in which we live. Interestingly, those working as activists also distance themselves from PR. But as we say in the UK – if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks – then it probably is a duck! As discussed above, it seems many working in PR prefer the status of working in a profession, regardless of whether or not this may be the case.

      I also wonder why there are over 4,000 civil servants in Canada working in the communications area if they are not reflecting the increased pluralism that Moloney identified. Why is it necessary to inform, educate or build relationships? What is the end goal? What is it that as civil servants, the expected outcome is envisaged to be? Is it that the public today have the same expectations of government as any other organisation in terms of engaging in respect of particular ideas or issues? Are they not participating in the wrangle of the commercial media and/or public attention marketplace? In explaining and educating the public in respect of complex matters (some of which they may be equally, if not more expert about), aren’t you seeking to achieve some consensus or compliance? In which case, isn’t this promoting a particular course of action to the public(s). Why is only policy change or political ideology seen as something to be sold? Surely the implementation of action (say, austerity budgets) is being promoted/sold to the public?

      Reflecting Wernick’s perspective, it is the presentation (i.e. packaging in choice of words, images, positioning etc) that reflects a promotional aspect since the presentation is the signifier that promotes the concepts so contained. Another layer is the fact that in making information of interest to the public (and the media very often in the first instance), means drawing attention to it, making it newsworthy and drawing on promotional means (memorable quotes, slogans and so on). Are you telling me that the comms from the 4,000 Canadian civil servants do not reflect any rhetorical aspects that draw attention to themselves to get the message heard, understood and acted upon?

      I’m also bemused by an argument that including any reference to promotion in a definition is seen as unhelpful because it is only one aspect, when said definitions are happy to present relationship building (which arguably is a minority of most PR practitioners’ work). In PR we continue to promote a primarily normative face to the world for our work and dismiss what may be positivist, i.e. the reality of the persuasive nature of communications.

      Saying that all practitioners use communications, reflects for me a purely tactical position for PR, that as I said in the post implies PR practitioners lack commercial acumen – and let’s not think commercial knowhow is restricted to the private sector. I’m stunned when experienced practitioner students (primarily working in the public sector) tell me that they don’t prepare budgets in their work – how on earth can they determine the value of what they do and how it contributes to the organisation if they don’t have a sense of how much they are spending to achieve specific results. How can they argue for investment in PR (and avoid being budget cuts). Are they just measuring outputs since outcomes would likely be to change (or maintain) knowledge, attitudes or behaviour?

      I also fail to see why all the tactical communications you mentioned are not promotional devices – what is the content? What is being sought as a result of these communications and monitoring/analysis methods? How are the strategies being promoted internally and externally?

      And as Jacquie L’Etang has observed, little ethnographic work has been done looking at what PR practitioners do (rather than what they say they do – want to be seen to be doing). So I don’t agree that
      even if building and maintaining relationships is the raison d’être of the generic PR body (which is not proven yet), this is not done for persuasive or promotional ends. Are you seriously telling me that 4,000 Canadian civil servants are paid purely to build relationships as the end goal? Isn’t there any expectations over what those relationships are intended to achieve? Isn’t that the overall objective that should define us?

      1. As one of these much maligned comms professionals working in the public sector, I would like to clarify a couple of things. This applies mostly to Scandinavia but is relevant to the old Western democracies that have a mature public sector.

        1. Comms personell in the public sector don’t primarily work for the government of the day but they work for the implementation of government policy enacted in parliament. Parliament is elected by the people and no matter how one may detest the sitting govenment’s political colouring it has a legitimate mandate from the electorate to govern.

        If it is a minority government it has to steer the perilous road of negotiation and compromise to get its policies passed. After these policies are passed, it is the loyal duty of the PR people to explain and interpret what the new policies mean.

        2. Political advisers to ministers and their political parties are the ones charged with advancing the party’s and ministers political agenda. And they sometimes have hard time getting what they believe to be brilliant story ideas pass through the “gate keepers” at the comms dept at the ministry. These “gate keepers” know what flies in the media and what doesn’t.

        3. Regardless of which government is in power, the State has an independent communications policy that is geared towards freedom of information and democratic participation by the citizenry.

        4. Of course state comms personell know that to get past media gatekeepers they’ve to employ the same comms and media strategies are their colleagues in the private sector.

  17. Don, Barnum was first and foremost an entrepreneur in show-business who used publicity/PR to promote himself, his wares and his shows. He became a brand in his own right. A bit like Sam Goldwyn he bought his stars literally (contractually) and then he promoted them and funded the whole shebang and pocketed the profits.

    BTW: I’ve worked in IT and finance and I can confirm that what Heather says is true. And when it comes to promoting products, the car industry is no where near as aggressive as retail finance was in from the 1980s onwards etc. etc.. and it filled even more space in trade press than than Heather’s lot in motors did. IT in the 1990s well…..

    1. I stand corrected about my ignorance about the history of PT Barnum, my knowledge is limited to what I have read in PR textbooks. My reference to Heather’s background in the car industry in no way dimishes my respect for her intellectual prowess in the PR field.

      I can confirm the “promotional” slant in the IT industry in the 1990s becaused I worked in the trade press from the mid 80s to the early 90s.

  18. Heather, insightful piece and excellent comments. I share your opinion that “promotion/promotional” does not have a necessarily negative connotation; in fact, I do believe it to be a root product of what PR is all about – promotion, influence, persuasion, advocacy, and a myriad of other words are a part of the mix. I think the negativity Don alludes to his comments comes from the corruption of PR — when promotion becomes hype, persuasion becomes propaganda, substance becomes stunt. I wonder sometimes if the sudden desire to redefine our industry is for the benefit of others understanding what we do, or for ourselves attempting to justify or validate what we do. And if the later is the case, then I feel we should be less concerned with defining our profession, and more on strengthening the code of conduct under which we practice it.

    As for the 3 potential definitions that PRSA came up with…my issue with PRSA is that I don’t feel PRSA truly does represent the complete and broad spectrum of public relations practitioners. PRSA is attempting to create a blanket, “one size fits all” definition for an industry that has an ever-increasing number of facets. I’ve always thought of PR as an umbrella term that defines a basic concept, but not a specific function. If you put 10 PR people in a room, chances are no two among them necessarily does the same thing or employs the same methodology or tactics.

    Actually, one of the best definitions I’ve seen to-date of the profession comes from Doug Bedell, a respected PR and social media practitioner from Pennsylvania who said in an article he wrote, “Public relations is largely about context, the settings in which information is presented and considered, in which influence is sought and relationships fostered or not.”

    1. Thanks Meg – I agree with you that it is the extremes that are often the most salient in forming opinions about PR. Shrill hype, manipulative propaganda and pointless stunts are all the negative end of the promotional scale. But isn’t that true of all communications and relationship building if it doesn’t have a purpose or relevance to those with whom an organisation seeks to engage? And, PR is not alone in having people who aren’t very good at what they do – or ethical in doing it! Not a fan of codes and licensing myself, but definitely agree with industry bodies helping to improve standards and ensure that practitioners are equipped and able to avoid pitfalls in poor practice.

      I also think you’re right about how the detail of PR practice is situational – and long may it continue to be so. Creativity is essential in determining appropriate strategies as well as tactics.

      That’s a great definition too – I remember a boss (actually a commercially-headed Marketing Director who went on to revitalise a national charity) who once told me he saw PR as creating the garden environment in which the marketing seeds could grow.

  19. It amuses me to wonder how PR professionals employed by the technocrats in Greece view their role now that democracy has been abolished. Perhaps they require “before” and “after” definitions of what they do for a living?

  20. I’ll counter your Sean Williams with my Kevin Moloney who sees all PR (communications) as persuasive (as per book review at: I’ve not said that PR = marketing at all. But even if an organization is involved in crisis management for example, its PR advisors are creating a narrative that seeks to promote a particular view of the organization (as apologetic, responsible, listening, etc). It wants to persuade people to trust it, not to lobby for legislation and yes (as in the case of Toyota, BP etc) to continue to be consumers.

    My ‘poor little me’ term wasn’t directed specifically at you but at the way that PR practitioners (pragmatically if you wish) see themselves as encroached upon by marketing. Interesting, the budget argument (economic capital) is one that we allow to dominate in part by not fighting back as a promotional industry. PR practitioners complain that they can’t get budgets for research and evaluation, for example. How much of that marketing budget is spent that way? How come the marketers get funding for social media campaigns, but PR people claim ownership of the ‘free’ approach of Twitter? I don’t believe that PR will overcome any inferiority complex by seeking professional status (we’ll just be happy to be the CEO’s trusted advisor) or tactically using social media. If we want budget for social media, why didn’t we just put the proposals together in the same way as our advertising and marketing colleagues? Or why don’t we work with the researchers, futurologists etc just as they do?

    (And you know that I use the term ‘press release’ as a generic term – often in a dismissive way as I feel that 99.99999% of the media/news/SM/Tweet… releases wouldn’t even class as smart promotion, just spam).

  21. Heather, in my mind the #PRDefined initiative had two self-made flaws, but different from what you are indicating:

    1. I think PRSA should have worked to create a definition specific to its own organization, including the sectors and areas that the greatest number of its members (including the ones they hoped to recruit to membership) worked in. As CPRS has indicated in its all-member message, it has the greatest number of individuals employed in various levels of government. Ergo, the “promotional” type of definition you are leaning towards doesn’t work, for the most part.
    2. It’s not that crowdsourcing in and of itself is a bad concept, but I think it should have been less willy-nilly in its parametres. If it was going to be adopted as PRSA’s “official definition” why was it opened up to non/never- or lapsed-members, as well as from other disciplines and/or countries? I say PRSA should “own” (up) to its own defining moment and end output/outcomes.

    From my point of view, you had a large number of “promotional” people either tweeting/blogging about how they spend their days and/or submitting definitions. They were looking for PRSA to come up with an “elevator” speech. When the end result did not reflect either of those things, there was a lot of anger.

    Who on earth believes that his or her one definition is going to rise to the top in a crowdsourced effort? It makes me smile that so many demanded PRSA go back to the table. Can you imagine if elections worked that way? The candidate you campaigned/voted for didn’t get elected. Darn it! Call another election, so I can try again.

    Finally, if all of these disciplines are integrating, you seem to be suggesting there really isn’t a place for a public relations-specific association. What do you want, some big-tent one? Because if that’s the case, the marketers are going to take over and PR will indeed become relegated to “marketing PR” (and mainly media relations).

    1. Judy – I wouldn’t disagree with you in respect of flaws in the #PRDefined initiative (there are many – including, as I wrote back in December ( is the lack of clarity in what was meant by a definition. Your suggestion of creating a PRSA members’ defintion would have set a valid parameter around the exercise. It is also interesting how crowd-sourcing has been taken to reflect a ‘my definition’ approach by many of those who participated. Maybe we just needed to update Harlow’s list of 472 definitions to something like 4.72 million in 2012.

      To come back to a couple of points about PR as promotional industry however. First, Wernick (and others) do look at ‘promotional politics’ and I believe that it is within government communications (at least in the UK and US) that we see evidence of the promotional culture that is inherent in modern society. What is now termed social marketing (used to be public information campaigns) demonstrates how the attitude towards the public is largely promotional and persuasive. Throughout all levels of government (and wider public sector) communications we see promotional signifiers from the language used, to imagery and methodologies. Government isn’t about building relationships and listening – the current UK controversial health bill is one example where evidently the intent for dialogue was persuasive. Okay, one could argue that this reflects that there was no real engagement with the mutually beneficial approach of the PRSA definitions. But perhaps it indicates (as with the crowd-sourcing initiative) that it isn’t realistic to say you will base decisions on looking for mutually beneficial relationships.

      I find it fascinating that so many ‘promotional people’ (as you call them) were interested in the PRSA definition. I agree a lot of them are confused in terms of seeing PR as part of the marketing mix – my framing is bigger than that. We are all involved as promotional workers, within promotional industries, operating in a wider promotional culture.

      You raise a good question about the place for associations as disciplines converge. I’ve not suggested renaming PR or sales, marketing, advertising as promotion – but advocated recognising each (alongside others) as promotional industries – indeed as cultural and economic intermediaries. Going forward, it may well be debatable if these terms remain or if new ones emerge. Where do you fit those who work in digital communications for example? Won’t we see arguments for a distinct body and occupation – probably in due course a profession – arising to meet their little tent needs?

      Are you arguing that bodies such as PRSA needs to keep the ‘promotional people’ outside of its tent? Should there be a test to ensure membes are only engaged in practising PR in the way in which PRSA defines it? Or is it okay to continue whereby most are involved in promoting (policies, issues, etc etc) but prefer the warm glow of a mutually-beneficial relationship definition?

      And why do PR practitioners always take the poor little me viewpoint that marketing will encroach and squash them like ants – if we can’t go nose-to-nose and show how our skills/knowledge and competencies are equal to, and in many cases, superior to, those of our marcomms colleagues
      maybe we should be in the press release production tent.

      1. Per Sean Williams: “All marketing is communication, but not all communication in marketing.”

        Heather, I don’t think of myself as a “poor little me” in my viewpoint. I’m a pragmatist. Look at the average organization and how much is budgeted for marketing versus public relations.

        P.S. And I don’t use “press” release as I find that to be an outdated term, particularly in light of digital options and audiences. Media or news releases.

  22. Perhaps ironically, PRSA engaged in a promotional exercise to create a ‘modern definition’ and has ended up failing to build mutually beneficial relationships with its stakeholders/publics (perish using such technical words).

    1. Heather: Rightly or wrongly, PR seems to have been defined by its connotational meaning rather than its neutral definition (if any such definition exists). From a purely rational standpoint there is nothing amiss in defining PR as a promotional industry.

      Trouble begins when one considers the connotational images it conjures; a subset of marketing, where PR is just a tool among many from the marketing tool-box. Images of the historical PT Barnum and his circus — the images are unending.

      The question that arises is whether pinning PRs “reputation” to a term with such a toxic history is an act of self-deprecation or a realistic acknowledgement of the status quo.

      I however agree that the current state journalism fits the description “churnalism” where text production is the order of the day and commercial managers that have taken over editorial control don’t give a damn about “quality journalism”. They are concerned with cutting costs and recycling texts and pictures on various media platforms; paper, digital, video etc.

      1. Don, I appreciate what you are saying with regard to the connotations, but don’t quite see the promotional linkage as entirely negative. I feel that like it or not, PR is a promotional industry but my view is that it needs to engage with this in order to demonstrate parity with marketing, advertising and sales colleagues in this very important area of many organizations (and not just those with profit motives). So rather than being a subset, PR is an expert in terms of promotion, and achieving business outcomes in this regard. Indeed, one could argue that the convergence trend means if PR practitioners engaged in this area don’t step up, they won’t just be a subset, but irrelevant (possibly outsourced to a PR sweat factory or replaced by computer generated press releases!).

        I don’t see the history of PR as promotion as being toxic because of the publicists. Indeed, it is surely the spin doctors and others who pretend to be building relationships but are really just being two-faced who are the biggest downer on PR’s reputation.

        Barnum (who was actually a business entrepreneur and was appropriated by the PR texts to be a ‘villain’ from my research) and the body of circus press agents of the 19th and 20th century had a lot that should be praised rather than seen as embarrassing. Their work was successful promotion – and the likes of Dexter Fellows (a lifelong circus press agent) were welcomed by the media and the public. Likewise, Constance Hope was a publicist involved in promoting her clients.

        For me acknowledging PR as a promotional industry is neither self-deprecation nor acceptance of a status quo (which seems to accept the ‘professional’ relationship model is superior – rather than both being inteconnected aspects).

        What I’d like to see is less denial of the promotional aspects and actually a focus on improving the standard of such promotional work. After all, it continues to dominate most of the PR awards – without little real engagement with what should be exceptional work in this area.

        1. Heather, could your passsionately held views about promotion be coloured by your expertise and experience from the motor industry? There is hardly an industry that is so highly “promoted” as the motor industry. Indeed even their dealership campaigns are dubbed “promotions.” Whole sections of trade publishing are geared towards the industry — here press releases from car manufacturers get published without editing.

          Like Judy, I don’t feel like “poor little me” in relation to marketing folks. It would be interesting to hear your explanation of how PR could attain parity with marketing that considers PR as just one of the tools in its tool-box.

          I have yet to read anywhere that PT Barnum was an entrepreneur and not promotional showman with bag of tricks up his sleeve. If what you write is indeed true then it is the PR texts that have given him a “bad press” posthumously.

          1. Don – As Paul and you have commented further, the motor industry is not alone in being a promotional one. Certainly there is a section of the automotive media that tends to take releases and use them without editing, but at the same time, the sector also has among the most critical, passionate and expert journalists. Jeremy Clarkson is no push over! Working with journalists on the specialist motoring titles (and the UK has the world leaders) means that you have to know your stuff and build strong relationships based on mutual respect. If you don’t you are likely to be labelled as a ‘chicken or lamb PR’ (a term a respected editor used when talking to the motor industry group last year). They deride PR practitioners who are all about the nicer-nicey and don’t know their torque from their turkey.

            The same high standards have traditionally been evident in many sectors – although sadly this has changed as specialist journalists are becoming less common. During my early career I never heard the term ‘pitch’ when talking to journalists. Yes, we were promoting cars and services (I also worked in the breakdown business), selling ideas (from recycling to local community acceptance of a car plant in its midst) and gaining internal support for our PR plans. Every day was filled with persuasive opportunities – and in return, journalists (and others) were selling us their ideas. That’s the heart of relationships – with both exchange and communal benefits emerging from collaboration.

            In my first job in the motor industry I worked for a PR Director in a function that was on equal status with the marketing and sales departments. I reported direct to the Director – unlike colleagues in other functions where there was a longer hierarchy. We had respect from the work we did, and even back then (over 20 years), our work was reported on at senior management meetings. We went to ‘take to market’ meetings to inform our colleagues in marketing of our plans – admittedly not often in an integrated way!

            Gaining parity with marketing in my experience (in-house and as a consultant) is about building relationships, explaining the benefits of what can be achieved – particularly when you focus on others’ problems where you can help, taking a robust and planned approach, communicating results and being fun to work with. There are many times when I’ve worked with, and for, marketing management – and it hasn’t largely been a bad experience. I’ve found that they are willing to spend budgets on PR (including investing in research and evaluation) and admire the ability of PR people to be flexible, turn problems into opportunities and smile in the face of some absolute morons in the media.

            As for Barnum – he was far more complex than the PR texts would have you believe – but I reckon he would have been fun to work with.

  23. Yes, there’s something profoundly disingenuous in the discussion PRSA is having about PR definitions. The crowd-sourced process to fathom a definition was itself an abdication of their responsibility to come up with something sensible by showing some leadership (wot do we think? We dunno; ask the crowd) in the discussion. So they ended up with the lowest common-denominator definitions to choose from….which itself narrowed the discussion and kept it trite. This was never a proper debate, discussion, but a staged-managed show from the start.

    This whole exercise makes good fodder for case studies in the “how not to” and “how to make things worse” categories. It highlights the limits to spin… but the “good” news is that it reveals just how irrelevant and detached the PRSA is; which is also a shame on them and by default our trade…and that’s the bad news, I fear.

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