Accountancy may be a profession, but PR is an art

In this guest post, Graham Goodkind argues that the PR industry is in danger of losing sight of what makes it special.

I remember once going to visit my elderly Grandma shortly after I started out in public relations. I told her that I’d got a job and, excitedly, she asked me what it was. I explained that I was an account executive at a PR agency.

A big smile came across her face; I could tell that it made her very happy and proud. I didn’t even really know what PR was before I fell into it, so I was a bit surprised that she appeared to. But anyway, she was pleased, so I was pleased.

It wasn’t until my next visit when she introduced me to other residents in the old people’s home as “my Grandson, he’s an accountant you know” that I realised the reason for that pride the week or so before. Clearly the the only word she registered was ‘account’ and thus she carried on believing, until the day she passed away, that her grandson had got a job in one of the professions that were, for her generation at least, the pinnacle in the world of employment.

Although most people in the industry seem to describe it as a profession, as far as I’m concerned PR is an art. Sure you do it professionally, but that is different. And in our obsession with profession, perhaps we’re not paying as much attention as we should do to the art of PR? I think we’re in danger of losing touch with what makes us special, as we try our best to fit in with the rest of the corporate world. I can’t help thinking: is PR becoming a dying art?

A friend of mine, who is in the arts world and knows that I have a few dollars to spare, tried to interest me in a Tracey Emin neon artwork the other day. Emin is quite famous for them. I nearly fell off my chair when I was told it was $95,000, I loved it but it wasn’t for me! Emin is a wealthy lady and there is clearly a real appetite for her works of art.

It’s one of those things looks like it probably took her about half an hour to come up with and create. But she’s not selling it for the equivalent of half an hour of her time. No one really cares about that anyway, they are just blown away with what they take out of it. But professions don’t work like that.

They’re more about quantifying the input than marvelling at the output.

Which is the main reason I think that PR is an art and we should put the profession stuff on the backburner if we want to get back on track. It’s a distraction and is taking us down the wrong path.

We create stuff. Often starting with a blank canvas. We come up with ideas that, when at their best, really can change a client’s fortunes for the better. A great insight or strategy can turn round a brand. A nugget of a concept that is then brilliantly executed can mean a challenger brand leapfrogs its rival and becomes the dominant player in its category. Or an ailing brand can have its fortunes revived with a stroke of creative genius. Now that is an art.

I heard the other day of a big PR agency that decided to get rid of the daily papers (I won’t embarrass them). I reckon it did so thinking it would be all cool and clever and say how it was now about social media these days and this was its visible ‘statement’ to support that.

But the ritual of skimming through the daily papers, picking up on the zeitgeist, getting ideas and then going to clients with ways to commandeer the news agenda to their advantage is really fundamental to the art of PR. To me, it’s what PR is all about and always will be. It takes a certain person to be able to do this and you’ve got to learn that art. Sure, these days, you’ll also want to take in key blogs, what’s trending on Twitter, various other online media outlets as part of this news agenda, but stopping the newspapers is like blindfolding an artist and taking away his or her easel.

Because of our obsession with profession, I worry that a lot of people coming into PR and others working at many agencies within it do not see the fascination for great thinking and ideas, those Emin-like moments, as fundamental to the art of what we do.

I hope 2013 sees a reassessment otherwise PR might sadly become a very boring thing to do. A bit like accountancy in fact. Sorry, Grandma.

Graham Goodkind is the group CEO and founder of Frank PR


  1. Fabfour
    7 Dec 12
    10:07 am

  2. I am feeling nervous about the comment trail on this one. Not because i don’t agree with Graham – I do. But because it never, ever seems to be acceptable to give accolades to the PR industry. Mostly because our work needs to be done behind-the-scenes or, as an old mentor used to say to me: ‘the best PR is invisible.’

  3. Dave
    7 Dec 12
    1:45 pm

  4. Fabfour, the ‘PR is invisible’ line is with your mentor is part of an old regime of PR that is more than outdated. It lives in a world were PR hid behind the scenes and did shameless things in the name of publicity.

    That’s not PR, and there is no reason why PR needs to be hidden.

    It still amazes me when I go into organisations and I get blown away by the amazing work that they do. Then I get told that most of the senior management are scared about communicating what they do. If an organisation, whether its commercial, research, government, not for profit is not telling people what it does and what it’s there for – then why is it there?

  5. Ms PR
    7 Dec 12
    1:59 pm

  6. Graham, what a fabulous piece: social, digital, print, electronic whatever – still takes discipline and an understanding of issues and trends that you’ll only get by reading widely and constantly – yes even the newspapers. Oh you can cast some blame to the PR uni run courses, where reading media is not on the list of things for PR students to do!

  7. Mark
    7 Dec 12
    8:51 pm

  8. Graham, while I agree that PR needs to retain creativity at its core, particularly in the consumer environment, I do think that if it’s going to be valued strategically at the most senior levels within client organisations, it has to ensure it’s seen as a professional industry. Certainly at a corporate reputational level – where issues affecting the perception of organisations can have a material effect on the value of companies – professionalism is central to PR being regarded as a trusted partner.

    What I do think PR needs to get much better at is adding to its art is science. You mention insights leading to a creative strategy. I agree that these can come through a voracious appetite for media (whether online or offline) and culture. They can also often come through an ability to read and analyse data and research. With the explosion in readily available consumer data this is only going to become a more critical part of the PR pro’s armoury.

    To remain too art-based is dangerous. For every Emin there are thousands of talented, hard-working artists deriving no value at all from their work. As Oscar Wilde said: “Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.”

    I think influence is the central role of PR, no?


  9. Sean Fleming (@flemingsean)
    7 Dec 12
    9:21 pm

  10. Getting rid of the papers is an attempt to sound cool and clever..?

    I’m afraid referring to PR as art comes across (to this reader, with his 20 years experience in the media sector) as an attempt to sound cool and clever.

    All the great artists step back to admire their work from a distance while they are working on it – to make sure it works. You maybe should have done the same, before falling into the ‘pot-calling-the-kettle-grimey-arsed’ trap.

    PR is no more an art than it is a profession.

    It wouldn’t hurt anyone if we all stopped being so bloody pretentious, frankly. It’s no wonder people outside the media sector don’t know what we do and think we’re all lying scumbags.

  11. Sally Webster, Lecturer PR & Communications, Victoria University
    8 Dec 12
    5:57 am

  12. Graham – thanks for discussing this. I’ve just presented on the importance of Creative Marketing at a conference in The Netherlands (NHTV Breda University) on ‘Creativity and Creative Industries’ – what you raise was discussed, including the importance of being aware of current, social issues (ie reading newspapers) to find strategic, creative solutions. This also aligns with a point Russel Howcroft made at a seminar for Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2011. He was asked what changes he would make if he was PM. His response: have all school children start the day reading newspapers, consider and reflect on the news, then discuss, debate what they’ve read considering the impact on them and on what they are doing, producing, creating. Something I also emphasise to my students at Victoria University. We should start a campaign encouraging youth to read newspapers!

  13. Tracey
    10 Dec 12
    2:34 pm

  14. I’ve just had a young PR intern still studying at Uni in my office for work experience. I was gobsmacked to learn that she had no knowledge of the various segments in newspapers and had no idea who listened to what radio stations – I couldn’t bring myself to ask about TV, internet or social media? My first task for her was to do exactly that….learn about the mediums (All of the them). Not her fault. She’s been taught to write a press release…but clearly NOT who to send it to!!!!

  15. Ms PR
    10 Dec 12
    4:55 pm

  16. Tracey i can beat that – welcome to uni students. The one that came for an interview today had not heard about the Austereo/DJ incident.

  17. Sally Webster, Lecturer PR & Communications, Victoria University
    10 Dec 12
    6:57 pm

  18. Tracy, totally support your comments. It is not the students fault. It is up to us – the academics / lecturers teaching them to ensure we have industry experience, industry knowledge are adapting to industry trends and explaining all of this to the students so they get a combination of theory with practice. We must develop job ready graduates – otherwise what are we (academics) doing in our teaching. An understanding of social, cultural, political affairs is critical in our work and also how the media works – both traditional and non-traditional. Sometimes I do feel I am teaching well-beyond my discipline of marketing communications. This means the issue is more widespread with students not getting this understanding from schools, home, peers, etc.

  19. Fabfour
    10 Dec 12
    9:27 pm

  20. Dave – fair point. However, I don’t think we are living that reality just yet in terms of the tolerance on client side. And the majority of media in Australia are so anti-PR that exposure just leads to misunderstanding and trouble.

  21. Accountable PR
    10 Dec 12
    10:49 pm

  22. What about being held accountable for your PR?

    James Hardie for example. They were spinning yarns faster than a Warney Googly and it looks like they pretty much got off with any real charges?!

    Was this matter already covered on Mumbrella? If not what is the go and how come these people got off so lightly? (Sorry if this strays a little of the track, however it is semi relevant and boy did they churn out the PR to gloss over their actions.)

  23. Accountable PR
    10 Dec 12
    10:50 pm

  24. “off the track”

  25. Nick
    12 Dec 12
    12:03 am

  26. Graham,

    The comparison of PR to art is a good one, but could be extended. Emin is very much an ideas artist, and there is certainly an echo of that work in the method of Frank PR: the use of a great idea to fire the imagination in others.

    The art of Emin and some of her contemporaries reflects a movement, IMHO, towards originality and the ability to convey an idea, with technique no longer paramount. However, much of the great art we see lasting over the centuries combines originality, idea transmission and technique.

    Of all the arts, I think maybe Jazz is an even better metaphor for PR: it involves a practioner who has the incredible ability to create a new idea in the moment in response to what is happening around them.

    You know what they are playing is improvised and original, yet it could have only been created because the work they put in over years, sometimes mundane practise of scales and set pieces, has given them the facility to conjure something new under pressure.

    On the obsession about profession, I tip my hat to a wonderful John Cleese lecture on creativity. 36 minutes of YouTube magic from 1991. He had a good deal to say about the importance of fun and humour to creativity, and how to kill creativity with a ‘closed’ environment. The ‘closed’ workplace is good for getting ‘things’ done but useless for original idea creation.

    So to the people who insist on professionalism and projecting a certain image at work at all times, yes there is a time and a place, but Graham’s right, think art if you want to inspire staff to come up with the ideas that separate you from the competition. Anyone can wear the suit and talk the talk.