Wednesday, July 4

Hanging Shingles: Public Relations As A Practice

You can define it, but it doesn't mean you can regulate the practice. That is what the public relations industry is learning the hard way. The industry doubts its credibility, but the problem is credulity.

Anybody can start a public relations firm tomorrow. There is no license. There is no mandatory accreditation. There is no oversight. In my city, some politicians have adopted the title in the past (a few who later served jail time) in order to make it all the more murky on why exactly someone paid them consultation fees. And when bad things like that happen, most will quickly turn a blind eye.

In fact, even when firms attempt to police their own, other public relations vets will fret that negative public relations stories hurt the industry as a whole. They say the bad apples don't change, but everyone remembers the industry stories. And then beyond that, there are some bad apples that the industry exempts because of their size, contracts, or connections.

The public relations industry is at the heart of its own calamities. 

The root of the problem is simple. The practice calls for generalists, but fills itself with specialists.

Right. In attempting to own media relations, social media, strategic communication, publicity campaigns (an offshoot of advertising), event planing, and so on, the industry has forced itself to gobble up tactical work instead of promoting more strategic tenets.

Never mind that it is easy to tell who is who. It's all the objectives they set. Ergo, how many column inches or blog posts that a company earns in a month is a publicity measure. What is the public perception of the company in relation to its competition among specific publics, on the other hand, is strategic.

Recognize the difference? One might impact sales like direct marketing (maybe). The other acts as a bolster or booster for anything else done. It's also significantly harder to measure, which is a thorn in the side of specialists who act like generalists in order to grab up more of the monthly marketing budget.

No wonder so many firms are focused on pushing stories. It's tactical. It's immediate. It's sort of measurable, even if most measures seldom consider the path to fulfillment. And since social media is frequently treated the same way, many will say it fits right in with likes, comments, and whatnots.

How public relations could heal itself if it were up to the challenge. 

I'm not very big on the idea of government intervention or regulation or degrees or mandatory accreditations. Those have to remain elective. Besides, government involvement would brush up against the First Amendment in the United States and comparable government contracts elsewhere.

So that means it is up to the industry, which must go beyond whatever short and punchy definition it is peddling. It has to outline precisely how any adopted definition applies to the practice. And then it has to have a majority of firms agree to it all.

If that can be done, and I doubt it can, it has to pressure all those who don't adopt the practice to stop stealing the public relations moniker and start embracing the endless number of specializations like social media, publicity, media relations, guru, etc.

If they don't on their own, then the remedy is publicity designed to shake off the pretenders. There is no other way around it. The industry has to out the bad and elevate the good (even if good examples of public relations are often invisible).

And for those who fear too many posts, articles, and finger points might damage the industry? They miss the point. After all, call outs ought not be public relations, but rather those firms that aren't in public relations. Get it? It's not about good public relations vs. bad public relations. It's about public relations vs. something other than public relations, including bad behavior or ignorance.

It would have to happen. Somebody would need to tell those firms (and maybe their clients) that while they might think what they do is public relations, what they really do is practice media relations and publicity or irresponsible and criminal behavior (however the shoe may fit).

Do you think that will ever happen? Probably not in my lifetime or yours, if ever. Public relations doesn't want it. There isn't even enough rope; but I do think we're due for more enlightenment.
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