Is PR Dead?

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A few weeks ago I read a piece in PR week by former Edelman EMEA CEO Robert Phillips pronouncing that public relations is dead.  It’s something I’ve long said and Robert made some very valid points:

“PR is dead.  Its business model, dominated on the consultancy side by bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise, is broken. Its philosophy – rooted in selling stuff to consumers, rather than addressing societal needs – is exhausted. A transparent world exposes the tired deceits of message management and spin. “

I couldn’t agree more.  The industry’s business model – pay us a large amount of money on the promise of something we can’t measure – is done.  Sure, companies still line up to purchase, but retainer fees are falling – they have been for the last 15 years – and scepticism about the value is at an all time high.  The ‘PR’ process – [it’s actually publicity, but…] of press releases, media pitching, interviews and coverage [if you’re lucky] doesn’t work in the real-time internet world. As for transparency… who knows what their PR company actually does?

Had he stopped here, I’d have agreed wholeheartedly with Robert.  But he didn’t.  He goes on to talk about public leadership; a new, Robert claims, democratic form of communications strategy where everybody has a voice.  He is also co-founder consultancy that offers advisory  and transformation programmes around this new approach.  And, you’ve guessed it, a book that will be published later in the year.  I’m not sold on the new public leadership model and his argument starts to sound more a veiled attempt to disguise old PR tactics in new [Emperor’s?] clothes.

Then, over the weekend, I read a piece by Robert White, principal and founder of PR Matters that details 10 things that PR is NOT.  Dead is not one of them.  I also read Robert’s response to the other Robert’s PR Week article, entitled Why claims that PR is dead are dead wrong.  White makes some interesting points but I found myself disagreeing with many of the points he makes.

He starts by stating that, “In PR, we believe good communication (content) and a great reputation are built upon integrity, transparency, and evidence-based results – and that spin is bad PR, because it has no values or ethics.”

I’m not sure that communication good or bad is synonymous with content.  Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s not.  But this view does reflect the shift by many agencies away from media pitching and towards content.  The number of agencies now offering content marketing has grown significantly in the last year.  If you don’t understand the difference between PR and marketing, which many PR ‘professionals’ don’t, check out my definitions of PR, marketing and publicity for clarity.

Spin is next up for Robert White, offering three reasons why Phillips’ assertion that the industry needs to escape the association with the image of PR as helping to bend the truth is incorrect.  I’m not convinced that any of them stand up to scrutiny.  White states that, “PR professionals hate spin and what it stands for. Any self-respecting PR person, agency, or group will do everything we can to convince management of the dangers and tremendous risks to an organization’s reputation if they do try to spin.” 

Which sounds a bit too much like spin to me. While there are some like White [and Robert Phillips and me] that may consider it bad form, you only have to read the website of a PR company to see how common it is.  Pick any agency’s site that come up in Google organic search results and tell me I’m wrong!

I could go on, but I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow commentary of the two articles. You can read them yourselves and draw your own conclusions.  To use Robert White’s conclusion, quoting Launcelot [Gobbo] in The Merchant of Venice, “the truth will out”.  I agree.  And it may come as a shock to many PR ‘professionals!

White concludes by saying that, “public relations is and always will be an effective channel of communication to make sure this happens.” Of that I’m not convinced. I’m not sure many of the traditional industry’s customers are either – most of the people I talk with think that traditional PR is over-priced, a combination of smoke and mirrors, un-transparent and delivers little tangible value.

To apply one of the frequently-used adages of our industry, ‘perception is reality’ what we think is irrelevant.  If our customers believe it to be true then it is time the industry woke up to it.

For what it’s worth, I think ‘PR’, at least the way that the majority of companies sell it; charge for it; talk about it; define it; and deliver it IS DEAD.  Public Relations professionals that don’t see that remain blissfully unaware of this fact are, I’d argue the walking dead.

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Photo from Flickr User MonsieurCaron                                                      Creative Commons