If you’ve ever heard the fable of the five blind men and the elephant you will appreciate the challenge of answering the simple question – what is PR – which I’ve selected for my first post at PR Conversations.
This ancient story relates how each man provides a different description of an elephant based on the personal experience of feeling one part of the animal. Their conflicting perspectives – is it rough or smooth, solid or flexible, thin or fat, hard or soft – lead the men to argue loudly over who has the most accurate perception of the elephant.
Of course, each opinion is valid as the different descriptions reflect a specific starting point and personal experience. Isn’t that a lot like trying to explain public relations? But the individual descriptions, based on isolated impressions of a leg, trunk, tail, tusk or ear, do not explain the entirety of the elephant. So it is with PR.
Those who encounter PR as journalists naturally believe it predominantly involves media relations. As such, an ability to write releases and pitch stories is paramount. Poor practices by press agents and publicists give the impression that all PR is manipulative; full of liars and spin doctors.
If your experience is largely on the basis of helping clients to promote their products and services, you will believe PR is part of marketing – a cost-effective promotional tool focused on generating media coverage above all else.
Similarly, if you are involved with internal communications, financial relations, lobbying or corporate social responsibility activities, you may have a partial viewpoint of the beast.
Should we turn to academia for consensus on the entirety of public relations? You are likely to find a different focus depending on whether the discipline taught in the journalism or media school or alongside marketing in business faculties. There are arguments for PR as applied psychology – which may imply it is a social science or is it a liberal arts subject?
Textbooks reveal hundreds, if not thousands, of definitions. Academic approaches range from the modernist, systems theory models of Grunig and Hunt, to the post-modernist critical perspectives of Holtzhausen, L’Etang or Moloney. Is PR an ethical guardian nobly protecting the public interest or an invisible persuader, propagandist and evil magician?
Should we look at PR in terms of advocacy, rhetoric or persuasion? Or communications – but is it one-way or two-way, asymmetric or symmetric? Direct or mediated? What about event management – or new media?
Maybe you see PR as building relationships with stakeholders or publics, managing reputation or handling risk, issues and crises? Is it about implementing at a tactical level or providing strategic counsel?
Do you see PR as a multi-million pound industry, providing exciting and influential career opportunities? Or are you the creative type, who enjoys coming up with ideas for new campaigns?
Should PR be open only to those who have gained an undergraduate degree in the discipline – or are post-graduate qualifications and vocational training programmes more appropriate for improving skills and understanding?
Or is this all a waste of time, because you simply need a pleasant personality and knowledge of good wine to schmooze with key influencers? Do you think PR is more about who you know rather than what you know?
Is this a profession that requires expertise, or is it something that anyone can practice? Should it be seen as a specialist function within organisations, or is our role to facilitate communications and create corporate advocates at all levels?
Should we seek a seat at the boardroom table – or is it sufficient to have the respect of our chief executives?
Rather than answering a simple question, I’ve raised many more. My own opinion is PR is like the elephant. There are many ways of describing aspects of the profession – and focusing on the individual parts may not bring us any closer to reflecting the entirety.
We need an ability to see the whole and draw together the conflicting opinions to improve our wider understanding of the value of PR – as well as better understanding of PR in society and organisations.
Rather than finding fault with those who hold a different attitude, or becoming defensive in supporting our own, possibly one-sided, viewpoint, I believe we need to recognise the elephant as it really is.