The real PR professionals are stepping forward

Emma Jacobs writing in the Financial Times this week dismissed public relations practitioners as gatekeepers to the media and called for organisations to communicate directly with journalists.

If public relations practitioners do little more than act as a switchboard for the media then Ms Jacobs is right, they should get out of the way.

But it is nonsense to suggest that a senior executive can sit by the phone or monitor Twitter day-in day-out, irrespective of their communication skills.

The fact laid bare by the fragmentation of media is that communications is what everyone does within an organisation.

In fact that’s the point I made to Ms Jacobs and it’s the only positive aspect about the public relations profession that she included in the article.

Social media has no respect for the traditional hierarchies within an organisation. Organisations are porous. Messages are shared via text, email, and social networks.

There is no longer any distinction between internal audiences or publics, typically employees, and external audiences.

With the right communication strategies, content and engagement, employees have the potential to be the most powerful, and crucially, trusted advocates for an organisation.

That engagement requires professional expertise. Public relations has a role in listening and engagement in every department within a modern organisation.

The article showed that when an organisation adopts a communication strategy and makes its reputation the responsibility of every employee, there are massive benefits.

But like everything else, public relations can be done well or badly. There are plenty of so-called PR professionals that will do a bad job, particularly if an organisation doesn’t have a clear vision and purpose.

Just as the notion of management as a profession emerged in the 1950s, professional standards in public relations are developing rapidly. Leading this movement are the accountable, Accredited and Chartered Members of the CIPR.

These individuals have a deep rooted commitment to qualifications, a Code of Conduct, Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and advancing the reputation of the profession.

There has never been such an exciting time to work in our business. I hope that I have the opportunity to share that story with Ms Jacobs soon.

Professional advisor for agencies and communication teams, Wadds Inc. Author: #brandvandals, Exploring PR and Management Communication. #PRstack, Share This, and others. Visiting Professor, Newcastle University.

  1. The public relations industry exists to help organisations – public, private, charitable, NGO, Government, and others – do an important job and that can be succinctly described as reputation management.

    Virtually every sector imaginable – including the newspaper and the media – has suffered reputation damage and the way to rebuild trust and reputation is something very close to the hearts of every professional communication professional.

    When I served on the Board of the CIPR I was often asked to appear on radio/TV by the former DG as I was previously a news and current affairs journalist at the BBC and understood how to put our points across and also why Max Clifford didn’t represent the professional practice of public relations or indeed subscribed to a code of conduct that we all recognised went to the root of our professionalism.

    I’ve always taken the view that a good PR professional is both a service to journalists like Emma Jacobs as well as for the client or organisation that employs them. Honesty and not deception of the truth needs to be the hallmark of the PR professional.

    Indeed, the very organisation that Emma Jacobs works for uses internal PR and external agency support as do all FT250 companies.

    The way in which the flow of information now needs to be managed and the way in which organisations need to be able to listen to those audiences requires a professional approach and one which in most situations will justify the investment in hiring appropriately qualified and experienced professionals.

    Interestingly, those who live in developed democracies tend to have a sophisticated PR industry whereas those who live in less democratic states have a very weak PR industry.

  2. What an unbalanced and ill-informed article that was in the FT.

    Apart from mixing up PR, publicity, press relations and marketing with no seeming understanding of any of them and ignoring the ways in which PR can be measured, it showed absolutely no understanding of what PR achieves.

    It’s telling that Hargreaves Lansdown brought in external help when the company floated, when it really mattered: “…we didn’t want to make a hash of our own float”! Quite. When it comes to money, the bottom line, they didn’t want to risk it. Yet PR is, at the end of it, all about the bottom line. Too few people have realised this. Reputation is an essential and powerful driver of a company’s value.

    This article isn’t even based on an outdated style of PR. It’s one which only existed among ineffectual PRs and in TV sitcoms; one of column inches and empty promises which no PR worth their salt ever espoused. Thank goodness we have other voices in our profession who are able to put the record straight and bring real and tangible benefits to their clients.

  3. Articles (Emma Jacobs!) of this nature only serve to dredge up the tired stereotypes of media relations. That said, I was rather taken aback when we had a leading national city journalist speak at Birmingham City University recently. In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek speech on the seven deadly sins of PR people, she openly discussed how senior executives frequently attempt to bully her team over what they should be writing. Ms Jacobs should be careful what she wishes for…

  4. Where I do think there is merit in Emma’s article is in the underlying concept of trying to create an organisation which needs its PR practitioners less and less. Having had conversations with many peers in the PR industry, the ‘them and us’ mentality is still prevalent when it comes to the media, where the organisation’s default position is how can we keep the media at bay and only use them when we have a good story to tell. This is not a basis upon which to engage in a meaningful long term relationship built on trust. Against this cultural backdrop it is easy to appreciate that PRs are seen as a protective barrier or gatekeeper rather than a facilitator.

    One of the most valuable things a PR can deliver within their organisation is to create an atmosphere where as many of its key people as possible consider themselves PRs too in terms of their willingness to engage proactively and reactively with the media.

  5. I haven’t read her article, but we’ve all seen them all before. In one sense of course, she’s right: our job is to create and then deliver the communications strategy for clients or employees, including creating positioning, messages, tone, tactical elements, and more. And we make no apology for doing any of this.
    And media relations HAS ALWAYS BEEN just one sub-genre of the public relations. What we do is take responsibility for putting into practice and then managing the relationships between organisations and the public AT EVERY LEVEL. If we as professional don’t do that effectively, we deserve to be called on it.
    But let’s not say we should get out of the way. at the very least it’s naive. In today’s digitally-lubricated world, it’s arguably becoming a social necessity, both for consumers of information and creators of information.

  6. Since Emma Jacobs cited Warren Buffett, let me add a key point she missed: Mr. Buffett bought the company I work for, Business Wire, which serves the public relations and media industries. He knows the value of good PR.

  7. Good response – the time to deal with it issue is crucial. I’d also add, journalists also need to understand that the PR function is there to protect them from the bureaucracy of dealing with internal mechansim of an organisation. And sometimes, from people who completely do not understand how the press works – and can blunder in and ruin a good media relationship before it’s even begun or end it straight out.

    Yes, transparency & openness is good. Journalists also have to understand that the UK press can be vicious, that not every journalist is open to all the facts of a story and likes a negative headline. Not every organisation wants to leave their people out to dry on that one…

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