The Press don’t know what public relations is. Who should tell them?

Modern public relations practitioners have changed. PRs understand that digital is not a specialised activity. It’s a fundamental requirement to getting the job done. PRs need to tell their own stories about how their industry has evolved.  Stories about how their craft, expertise and strategic insight help transform organisations into social businesses – writes Scott Guthrie

In London last week The Crowd &I hosted its second #FuturePR event: why the PR profession currently lacks any public figureheads. A panel discussion followed a videoed presentation by the Independent’s assistant editor and media editor, Ian Burrell.

I’m currently Sydney-based enjoying the Jacaranda blossom so missed the debate with:

  • Simon Collister, senior lecturer in public relations at London College of Communication,
  • Gem Griffiths, managing director of The Crowd &I,
  • Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations Consultants Association, and
  • Stephen Waddington, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

But, I’ve now watched the video, read Wes Hosie’s blog post  and George Garnham’s Storify round up.

In his video Ian Burrell expands on his Independent article from May, 2014. His opening line sets the tone: “This year has been a public relations disaster for the public relations industry”.

His central theme is there are no heroes in UK public relations. PR “needs high-profile advocates to explain more clearly how it works otherwise that role will fall to fictional media.”

I hold a lot of sympathy for this view. The problem for me is how Ian illustrates his point. He shows clips from Frank Spencer – a telly favourite in the 1970s.

He shows clips from Absolutely Fabulous – a sitcom which ran for six series – the first five of which had ended by 2003.

Jerry Maguire: not even about PR

He turns his gaze from the small screen to the big screen referencing a Business Insider article written by Ronn Torossian which includes Jerry Maguire in #2 position of a top 10 best PR movie round up. This film, from 1996, starred Tom Cruise as a Sports Agent – in other words: a bloke in a different line of business altogether.

Ian talks of journalists as figureheads within his profession, “I’m not seeking to do a Robert Peston on you” referencing the now infamous Charles Wheeler lecture from June, 2014 before doing just that; spending the next few minutes reading extracts from Robert Peston’s lecture: “The point is that as a journalist I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy” quotes Ian.

The script then becomes slightly more complicated as Ian quotes Robert who in turn is quoting Harry Frankfurt’s essay entitled “On Bullshit”. And, it all begins to start sounding a little like Marc Anthony addressing the crowds of Rome at Julius Caesar’s funeral. … “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” etc. etc. Ian continues this thoughts on Peston: “very strong words; don’t necessarily agree with them” declares Marc Anthony – I mean Ian.

Leveson Inquiry was point of crisis for UK journalism

The Leveson Inquiry is briefly mentioned; passed off as the phone-hacking scandal. It’s brought up in relation to Andy Coulson and Matthew Freud. Andy Coulson, he asserts, is “the second most high-profile person in this [PR] business at the moment”.

Wikipedia holds a different view describing Andy Coulson as “an English journalist and political strategist”. A journalist for 21 of his 25-year career he was only out of journalism a total of four years – first as Conservative party communications director in 2007 and then Director or the Communications for the Prime Minister in 2010 (resigning the following year).

The Leveson Inquiry was more than about phone hacking. Little to do with  public relations. And everything to do with the failings of sections of British journalism. It was established in the wake of that scandal at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid but it was not confined to phone hacking. It also looked at other potentially illegal behaviour: the relationship between the press and the public; the relationships between the press and the police; the relationship between the press and politicians.

The fact that Max could be seen as PR’s most recognised figure probably speaks to his quotability. A lack of available time or inclination for journalists to keep up with changes in the public relations industry. The fact that spelling out ‘PR’ takes up less space in a headline than ‘publicist’. And an ‘ownership void’ within the industry which perhaps should have been claimed and filled by its professional bodies.

Throughout the video Ian uses the terms: media relations, publicity, and public relations interchangeably. This brings the conversation around to Max Clifford.

Ian Burrell talks about Max Clifford a lot, actually – “If you were to walk down any high street at the beginning of 2014 and ask people to name Britain’s most famous PR professional, the answer would be Max Clifford”. This may well be accurate, but not correct.

Max Clifford belongs to the first model of Grunig and Hunt’s four models of Public Relations first described in 1984. That of “press agent of publicity characterised by persuasion and manipulation to influence audiences”. Max’s golden age was when tabloids were king: pre internet; pre social media; pre fragmentation of the media. To be honest, Grunig and Hunt’s four models probably lives in that era, too.

The fact that Max could be seen as PR’s most recognised figure probably speaks to his quotability. A lack of available time or inclination for journalists to keep up with changes in the public relations industry. The fact that spelling out ‘PR’ takes up less space in a headline than ‘publicist’. And an ‘ownership void’ within the industry which perhaps should have been claimed and filled by its professional bodies.

I would have loved to get an insight from Ian on how UK journalism is rebuilding its credibility in the fallout out of this scandal. So that public relations could learn.

Public Relations industry is bigger than a single name

The public relations industry is bigger than a single name and a single voice. Clifford was a great publicist for his clients and an even better self publicist. But, like two-thirds of those involved in some form of public relations business in the UK he did not belong to either of the UK’s professional bodies – and therefore never signed up to their codes of conduct.

Max Clifford Associates Ltd is currently in Liquidation. Its wind up date given as 1st August 2014 with outstanding liabilities reported to be £0.4m.

Andy Coulson is not a member of the PRCA or CIPR either. And I doubt, Ronn Torossian, New York PR man and author of Business Insider’s top 10 list of PR movies has signed up to the Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics either. Hamilton Nolan, a one-time PRWeek journalist wrote in Gawker that Ronn Torossian  “embodies the public’s worst ideas about what a PR person is: loud, brash, more flash than substance, dirty, manipulative, amoral, and, in the end, not particularly bright”.

And here lies the rub. Ian Burrell notes, the industry is changing: “PR is attracting high-flying graduates in a way it wasn’t a generation ago. The PR industry is growing, it’s up to almost £10bn up from £8bn” the previous year.

The industry is maturing, too, with professional aspirations and a desire to benchmark itself against management consultants. But with only a third of practitioners bound under industry body codes – and a fraction of those committed to continuous professional development – it’s going to be a slog.

With apologies to my headline, newspapers are no longer limited to being ‘the press’. Modern newspapers have had to develop into multi-platform media outlets delivering content via web, mobile, video, podcast as well as via dead tree.

PRs need to tell their own stories about how their industry has evolved

Today’s modern public relations practitioners have changed, too. PRs understand that digital is not a specialised activity. It’s a fundamental requirement to getting the job done. They understand big data, how to shoot video, and how to build compelling content ‘marketing’ before optimising that content for search. They also understand, that ‘PR’ is not short-hand for ‘publicist’, and that the business cannot be defined by media relations alone.

PRs need to tell their own stories about how their industry has evolved – and continues to evolve.  Stories about how their craft and expertise and strategic insight helps transform organisations into social businesses. PRs have a bright future – but, in my opinion, they need to build a strong, unified industry voice via the CIPR and PRCA. That means signing up to their codes of conduct and understanding that to be relevant tomorrow means lifelong learning today.

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About the Author Scott Guthrie

Scott Guthrie works with companies to drive business growth in the social age through strategic insight and technical know-how. That's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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4 comments
David Sawyer says November 18, 2014

Nice post Scott. Yes, we don’t have our troubles to seek as an industry. But the answer lies in your last couple of pars. Well done for wading through all of that:O).

Reply
    sabguthrie (Scott Guthrie) says November 18, 2014

    Thanks Dave – ‘Twas ever thus. “Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts” etc etc PR has moved on – some sections of journalists haven’t noticed. PRs need to tell their own stories.

    Reply
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