Is PR dead… definitely for the 10th time?

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Is PR dead, the future of PR, who should PR report to and PR’s relationship to marketing have been debated for longer than I’ve been in PR (since 1989 before you ask).

The global pandemic has meant the issue has again bubbled to the surface. A couple of weeks ago I joined in a lively Twitter conversation about “Who do you think PR and comms should report to?”. Then Paul Sutton did a great podcast with Gina Dietrich with the provocative clickbait title of “PR won’t survive the pandemic”. CorpComms magazine ran a webinar on whether in-house comms has finally proved its strategic value through the pandemic. The topic has been debated on numerous Facebook, LinkedIn and Guild communities and networks that I’m part of.

A common thread running through many of these conversations is a lack of clarity about what people are actually talking about when they say ‘PR’ and ‘marketing’. This means people advocating different opinions are doing so from what they think ‘PR’ or ‘marketing’ are, which means from their perspective they might be right. But if PR and marketing are actually something different then they might be wrong.

What is PR?

Often when people try to discuss the definition of public relations they are accused of being insular and navel-gazing when we should be focusing on the bigger picture of how we contribute to business or organisational success. However, if you don’t know what public relations and marketing are then it’s nonsense to talk about their demise or their relationship with each other. What is PR is a subject I’ve written about before. Without knowing what PR is it’s also impossible to know what its contribution to business or organisational objectives can be.

The assumption in many of these conversations appears to equate ‘PR’ with media relations and earned media or possibly even a bit of owned media. This is about as nonsensical as it’s possible to be. Public relations has never been just media relations. Not ever. This isn’t something new that’s about digital or social media. It has always been incorrect to equate PR with just media relations.

It’s questionable if it was ever even mainly about media relations. When I studied for my CAM Diploma in public relations in the early 90s media relations was just one of many topics I needed to know. This wasn’t just academic theory which differed from actual practice. In my first job, I did speak to journalists and write news releases, but I also produced employee and customer newsletters, developed annual reports, made videos, built and helped run exhibition stands, did advertising, advised on community issues and sustainability, and much more.

Media relations is one of the most important elements of PR and always will be as long as there are important mainstream media, but it has never been what PR is. If you think it has then you haven’t been doing PR, you’ve been doing media relations.

Purpose is what counts

A lot of the confusion arises because people focus too much on talking about activities and tactics rather than the purpose of what we are doing to contribute to achieving organisational objectives.

Media relations (earned media) is just a tactic. Advertising (paid media) is just a tactic. SEO is just a tactic. All are equally valid tactics to be used by either marketing or PR. If you’re banging out a news release about a new product launch then it’s probably marketing. If you’re doing an advert to explain why you aren’t controlled by a foreign government then it’s probably public relations. It doesn’t matter who does it, as long as it is effective, ethical and works.

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Public relations has always been channel-neutral and encompasses media relations, advertising, SEO, design and much more. What PR is collectively guilty of is being too slow to adopt new tactics and activities as they emerged. PR should have been producing websites from the start. It wasn’t. PR should have been doing SEO form the start. It wasn’t. PR should have understood and been doing AI and automation from the start. It isn’t.

I’ve always endeavoured to be open to embracing new and better ways of working. It’s why I built my first website in 1995. It’s why I started one of the world’s first PR blogs in 2003. It’s why I joined Twitter in January 2007 and ran the UK’s first political Twitter campaign a few months later. I could go on. Today my work is focused on helping in-house PR teams and PR agencies to understand and embrace future trends and new ways of working. The fact that PR has often been slow to embrace these changes, doesn’t point to the imminent demise of PR, just that it needs to try harder to innovate.

PR is much more than just marketing

The idea that PR won’t survive or will be subsumed into marketing is wrong. However, what might change are the labels and names we use. I’ll quite happily use lots of different terms to describe what I do – public relations, communication, corporate communications, corporate affairs, public affairs, marketing communication. I’ll use different labels depending on who I’m talking to.

Employers and clients don’t really care what the discipline is called. They just want professionals who can help achieve business or organisational objectives and help solve problems.

Another myth that perpetuates is that integrated communications is somehow new. It isn’t. When I started work in 1989 most of the big regional agencies were ‘integrated’ with creative, PR, media buying etc under one roof and often working together. When they didn’t work in an integrated way it tended to be because the client didn’t want to rather than because different parts of the agency couldn’t play nice together and run integrated campaigns.

The nomenclature is however still relevant to all of us doing public relations as the risk is if we use the wrong label in our heads then we think of ourselves in the wrong way and ignore important parts of our purpose. I will always be a public relations professional as my expertise developed over 30+ year is on how reputations and relationships impact on organisational or corporate success. Over this time I’ve developed lots of tactical expertise and experience which I can, and do, deploy for just communications or marketing without a broader context. Public relations is far more than the sum of the tactics it uses.

All of the best in-house corporate communications teams are really doing public relations as none of them restricts their counsel to just communicating decisions. They provide senior strategic counsel to help the C-suite make the right decisions based on how they will impact on organisational success through the lens of ethics, reputation and relationships. We don’t need to get to hung up on what the label is as long as we remember that public relations is ultimately about what an organisation does, not just what it says.

A PR professional who reports to marketing is always going to be hamstrung because marketing is too siloed to be responsible for everything that falls within the remit of public relations. How can internal communications, investor and analyst relations, public affairs or community relations be managed effectively via marketing which has little expertise or usually even interest in these areas?

Communication measurement and evaluation

One of the reasons some people question PR’s future viability is its ability (or lack of) to crack measurement and evaluation. Bollocks! I’m sorry for swearing, but bollocks. There are several issues that need addressing:

  1. It’s true that historically most PR people are rubbish at communication measurement and evaluation. In fact, it is still what most PR and communication are weakest at which is why helping them to do it better is one of the biggest parts of both my consultancy and training business.
  2. PR professionals can do and some actually do measurement and evaluation that is every bit as robust and relevant as anything advertising and marketing people can do. But not enough of us do this.
  3. Lots of so-called measurement in marketing isn’t actually that robust, it’s just that those peddling the numbers are incredibly bullish and confident about them. PR needs to do better measurement and be honest and confident about what the data means.
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It’s impossible not to do PR

Another reason to dismiss those who are predicting the demise of PR is it’s physically impossible not to do public relations. The clue is in the name.

If an organisation exists then by definition it has reputations and relationships. It has a reputation or more accurately different reputations with different stakeholders. It has multiple relationships with different stakeholders such as customers, distributors, employees, suppliers, competitors, regulators, potential customers, ex-customers, potential recruits, ex-employees etc.

It is therefore physically impossible for an organisation not to ‘do’ PR. All it can choose to do is let people with no professional expertise manage it, leave it to luck and not bother managing it at all, or to manage it professionally. There is no option not to do reputations or relationships. There is no option not to do PR.

PR will therefore always exist even if it ends up with a different name. What is questionable is if some traditional ‘PR’ agencies will continue to exist. If they are just selling tactical services such as media relations, advertising, SEO, content marketing or design then any agency can sell those. Just look at how many SEO and digital agencies have employed ‘PR’ people to be responsible for securing earned media and creating owned media.

Two types of PR

One reason this debate perpetuates is that PR is channel-neutral and covers such a broad spectrum of activity. A publicist securing favourable media coverage for a consumer brand is PR, a media relations wrangler helping to prevent negative media coverage is PR, a content creator focusing on SEO is PR, an analyst using data for planning is PR, a lobbyist working to prevent a damaging legislative change is PR, the list goes on.

One distinction, that helps explain the tension between those who see PR as part of marketing and those that see it as a separate discipline, is the purpose of what we are doing. If the work is mainly focused on prompting demand or direct action – buy this, vote for her, donate to them – then it is more closely related to marketing. If it is mainly focussed on an organisation’s permission to operate – creating an environment where marketing can do its job – then it is public relations in its truest sense. Permission to operate extends far beyond just prompting demand as it also encompasses permission from legislators, investors, employees, the community and society as a whole.

The future isn’t for PR to become part of marketing and lose much of its value, but for both types of PR to recognise the value of the other and the need to work in a more integrated and collaborative way.

Corporate affairs needs to catch up

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In my career, I’ve done lots of both types of public relations. I’ve done marcoms PR to sell everything from lawnmowers and manufacturing ERP systems to TV programmes and mobile phones. I’ve done corporate communication and public affairs for everything from nuclear reactors and pharmaceuticals to global technology giants and governments.

One theme, related to the ‘PR is dying’ myth, is that corporate communications and public affairs are often more conservative and slower to adopt new ways of working. Often they aren’t at the forefront of using digital insight, SEO, corporate storytelling, measurement and evaluation and other emerging areas of international best practice in communications.

That’s why a lot of my work revolves around digital transformation and modernisation for in-house corporate communication teams, PR agencies and corporate or public affairs consultancies.

Is PR dead?

Let’s stop wasting time asking is PR dead and get on with helping businesses and organisations to thrive.