Imagine a world without public relations. At first glance, it sounds appealing. Journalists would get a break from spurious pitches. The public might be spared some commercial and political propaganda. We’d all get some rest from our over-promotional, post-truth culture.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s not going to happen. A world without public relations is simply not possible. Let me explain.
Public relations is not advertising (neither in its free nor paid guises). But it’s simplest to view it through the lens of advertising.
Advertising - paid for promotional messages in the media - is easy to turn on and turn off: it’s campaign based. There are many examples of brands that have built and maintained their prominence through advertising. There may be fewer that have achieved success without turning to paid-for advertising, but they do exist. (In The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, authors Al Ries and Laura Ries listed several, with Google prominent among them.)
A world without advertising is easy to imagine, though it would have its downsides. Would we choose to live in North Korea? Will we subscribe to watch ITV, or pay more for our newspapers?
Are we ready to pay for Facebook and Instagram, Google and YouTube? Their large profits, remember, do not come directly from their users, but from the information and access they give to advertisers to target us with their commercial messages.
There are privacy concerns from all this oversharing that became prominent with the Cambridge Analytica revelations, but in general we accept the arrangement. We like free services. We welcome free choice.
An absence of public relations is not possible because public relations is not campaign-dependent (though campaigns are often part of the mix).
In the absence of paid, professional public relations, organisations would still be talked about. They would still be written about. Their teams would still go about their work, briefed occasionally by management.
Much public relations activity revolves around business-as-usual rather than involving campaigns (though these are the visible tip-of-the-iceberg; they’re exciting; and they tend to be put forward for awards because they have a beginning, a middle and an end).
If this is the case - that business-as-usual would carry on without the intervention of public relations professionals - what’s the worst that could happen without our involvement? What right do we have to exist?
One way to answer this involves a discussion of return on investment (ROI), of attribution (how much of an organisation’s success can be attributed to specific inputs such as public relations). These are questions we often address, and will be doing so again at the AMEC conference later this month.
For now, my challenge is to imagine a world without public relations. How bad would it be?
Promotional work could continue as they’d still be a marketing department. Customer relations would continue to be handled by sales and by customer service teams. Digital marketing specialists would carry out keyword research, would still optimise the website and social media accounts and continue to seek valued backlinks. So is public relations redundant? Am I boxed into a corner with no logical way out?
The answer may seem surprising.
The absence of public relations would not mean an absence of promotional activity. There’d be no lack of a focus on ‘us’. (It’s this tendency towards ‘we’, ‘we’, ‘we’ that leads consultant and Spin Sucks author Gini Dietrich to tell clients to ‘cut out the French’.)
What would be missing would be a focus on ‘them’; the other parties to a conversation, the other side of an argument, other interests not yet strongly represented.
Public relations - practised as internal communication - mediates between the us-and-them of management and workers. Mutual understanding is better than mutual mistrust.
Public relations - as media relations - makes the case for journalists to be given access to senior management. You can criticise the gatekeeping role of public relations, but who else would argue that the media should be given privileged access to managers and to information? Can you see a legal adviser arguing for journalists to be given a higher priority than stakeholder groups with a legitimate interest in the organisation?
Public relations - as reputation and crisis management - seeks to anticipate the likely reaction of other groups to management decisions. And it’s not only applicable to private sector businesses. There’s legitimate public scrutiny of public sector bodies. And charities can stumble over us-and-them. As crisis expert Chris Tucker has argued, Oxfam notoriously failed to recognise who the true victims were after the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Hint: it wasn’t Oxfam itself.
Public relations - as public affairs - mediates between organisations and legislators over questions of public policy. It might be in the public interest to ban all diesel and petrol vehicles, in that children’s health could be improved as a result. But it might be against the national interest to destroy an industry and make many thousands redundant. And imagine the public protests when car owners were told they were not longer able to get around as before. We’d have our own gilets jaunes on the streets. This could destabilise the government.
Public relations - as corporate social responsibility or sustainability - aims to ensure that organisations should become part of a solution to long-term problems (the environment, inequality, a lack of diversity and inclusion) rather than being seen as part of the problem.
I know: I can hear the critics condemning this as well-meaning twaddle. The role of public relations, they would argue, is to defend its paymaster. To be an advocate. To persuade others to change their minds. That’s a legitimate perspective and it’s been made recently by Paddy Blewer who argues for the honourable role of the mercenary.
The difference in these perspectives is not binary. It may only be a question of timescales.
Success over the long term requires a process of negotiation and adjustment. Sometimes, we’ll win an argument. Sometimes we’ll lose. Sometimes legislation will help our organisations; sometimes it will work against us.
Activists may be outsider groups implacably opposed to the interests of an organisation. But sometimes they become insider groups, keen to work with business and with government to move in a desired direction through compromise.
It’s necessarily complex, and the longer timescales on this activity mean that this type of public relations (more accurately described as corporate communication or corporate affairs) is rarely singled out for industry awards.
It’s invisible to the outsider. Most of these conversations and negotiations are taking place within the organisation, not in the public sphere.
And that’s my point. Imagining a world without public relations is to envisage a world where there’s plenty of action, but little emphasis on the likely reaction; where we know what we want to say, but we’re not listening to the interests of others.
That this shouty, argumentative public sphere, full of untruths and propaganda, is where we are today should not be seen solely as a failure of public relations. It’s the very reason public relations is needed more than ever.
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.