Wednesday, December 10

Why Picking A Fork In The Road Will Doom PR

Public Relations
Twenty years ago, most professionals agreed that public relations could be segmented into three basic disciplines — public relations, media relations, and publicity. All three saw some overlap, with only practitioners and amateurs confusing the terms outright.

Nowadays, it's shaping up to be considerably different. When public relations decided it wanted to "own" social media, it created yet another schism within the industry, with some hoping to define its practices as traditional public relations, advocacy public relations, and social media PR. And it's this split that could eventually doom public relations because none of them resemble public relations.

According to one Forbes column, traditional public relations can be defined as media relations, with the principal endeavor being the pursuit of media mentions in a world with an ever-shrinking pool of news outlets. Advocacy public relations can be defined as the heavy guns, where strategists fund research to support whatever message points were voted on by special interests a week prior. Social PR covers everything from the 19-year-old intern managing Twitter to more lucrative content creation and social network distribution models. And that's it?

All three forks lead to oblivion. Don't pick any of them.

As author Robert Wynne points out, traditional public relations (as defined by the article) has faced a market contraction. Traditional firms that focused primarily on media relations are seeing their monthly retainers shrink as fast the news outlets they once catered to. Some have even made the mistake of accepting "per placement" rates, which only reinforces the pursuit of publicity at all cost.

While it used to be considered a nobler pursuit than writing pitches and press releases exclusively, many advocacy public relations firms have been sucked down the black hole of propaganda. Wynne cites several political spin campaigns, ranging from health care to global warming, whereby organizations invest millions of dollars to prove their points of view rather than find the truth.

The third fork, social media PR, runs accompanied by the myth that anybody can do content marketing and then attempt to sway the masses direct by creating some sort of viral phenomenon online. It was also the cause of many public relations budget cuts. In their desire to "own" social, many firms missed the memo that it meant more work for less money.

If these are the three forks from which public relations professionals can choose, the field might as well fold today. The first is too narrow, relying too heavily on a single public to be effective. The second isn't public relations as much as it is propaganda. And the third has already been played out, with the next step in online communication being very different than what we know today.

Public relations desperately needs to get back to the business of outcomes.

The real problem with thinking of public relations as being split into three forks is that it misses the point. Public relations is not a process as much as it is a concept. It's fundamental purpose is to transform "us" and "them" into "we" by evaluating trends, making recommendations, forging relationships, and providing for communication that produces mutually beneficial outcomes. 

It doesn't matter how that communication is exchanged — through a news outlet or direct to public. But what does matter is that any content shared is authentic, accurate, and truthful in order to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes. Anything less isn't public relations as much as it is propaganda. And anything more tends to compound the challenges that the field has yet to adequately address.

Maybe it's time to reconsider the original three disciplines again.

Public Relations. The job is to provide counsel on the exchange of mutually beneficial communication.

Media Relations. The job is to maximize positive media coverage without paying for it directly through advertising.

Publicity. The job is the deliberate attempt to proliferate the public's perception of a subject.

With the original model, all anyone had to remember was that the world view of public relations and publicity was fundamentally different. It otherwise worked fine, even after social media arrived. It also produced more outcomes.
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