It sounds good in principle. A sign in Cairo airport directs passengers to Egypt Air Public Relations. In practice, the desk turns out to be manned by a customer service team.
The team is friendly, polite and helpful – a credit to the airline. It constitutes good public relations, even if it is not PR as we think of it today.
It begs two questions: What is Public Relations? And is the term fit for purpose?
Clearly, PR has moved on since its early days of B.T. Barnum’s publicity stunts.
Today’s digitised and accountable landscape means PR is about listening, understanding, outreach, engagement, measurement and evaluation.
It is about advising leadership as well as manning the product and reputational coalface.
It is about cooperation and collaboration, joined-up thinking and connecting dots.
Yet the PR industry continues to suffer from a poor name and image. It is seen to lack real bite and C-suite credibility and is tarnished by its association – merited or otherwise – with ‘spin’ and smears.
He is correct: I deliberately avoid it, and use the word Communications instead.
Most importantly, I want to reflect the fact that ‘PR’ people don’t just puff products and salvage broken reputations but provide internal communications, leadership communications, stakeholder communications, corporate communications, corporate marketing, influencer communications, digital and social media communications, and a host of other forms of communications.
I also aim to persuade my readers that the principles and practices of online reputation management – a notoriously shady ‘industry’ – must be approached strategically, appropriately and ethically to be effective.
This, I figure, would be more likely achieved by viewing online reputation through a Communications rather than a PR or digital marketing prism.
I am not alone. Most organisations have renamed their Public Relations units as Corporate Communications or simply Communications teams. PR agencies and industry associations such as the PRCA (formerly the Public Relations Consultants Association and now the Public Relations and Communications Association) have followed suit in whole or in part.
Yet the term Public Relations stubbornly
persists – in the industry, in business, in the media, and amongst the general
With competition hotting up as marketing agencies, management consultants and others encroach on PR industry turf, there are compelling reasons to drop the term Public Relations entirely and replace it with Communications or variants thereof.
Such a move would be brave.
The earned media dimension of PR may lose its pointed edge. And the term ‘communications’ is open-ended, meaning many things to many people.
It would also require real ambition.
Ad agencies have been busy repositioning themselves as marketing agencies in order to reflect their broader capabilities, and to give themselves the flexibility to move into new areas.
This leaves space for the PR industry to occupy the Communications high ground and everything it entails.
A window now exists for PR to own the term Communications, and to rename itself in its own new image.
It should move fast, and aggressively.