Head to Head: Is the PR industry suffering from an identity crisis?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the industry's senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Angie Bradbury, managing director at Dig&Fish goes head to head with Liz McLaughlin, director of Horizon Communication Group on whether the PR industry is suffering from an identity crisis.

The PR industry offers clients a vast range of capabilities which has often caused confusion when trying to determine what PR is.

Dig&Fish’s Angie Bradbury argues that the PR industry is in the middle of an identity crisis because every agency offers something different. She also argues the word of PR has moved from a noun to a verb which diminishes the PR’s broad remit.

Meanwhile McLaughlin says the PR industry has always understood its remit and it has never been a one-size fits all industry.

Yes, argues Angie Bradbury, managing director, Dig&Fish:

Bradbury says the PR industry has a definition crisis because its remit is so large

“In many ways I think the PR Industry has always faced an identity crisis. Or perhaps a definition crisis is more appropriate.

There are many different companies out there who describe themselves as PR companies, with their remit stretching from corporate communications to lifestyle publicity and everything in between.

Depending on the experience someone has had and how closely that experience correlates with their own beliefs, the perception could be good, bad or otherwise.

I started in a time when PR was Public Relations and the Wikipedia definition that “Public Relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics” was the prevailing point of view. But it seems that definition has waxed and waned and often been poorly understood by client and practitioner.

In the past decade however, I believe the industry has been challenged by the following four main issues:

  • The word PR has moved from a noun to a verb, totally diminishing the broad spectrum of disciplines and specialities PR covers. When I hear people say things like “Oh yeah, we are PRing the event…” I honestly want to scream.
  • Similarly, Spin Doctor has become a synonym for PR. Going back to the font of modern-knowledge, Wikipedia calls a Spin Doctor “someone who is skilled in public relations and who advises political parties on how to present their policies and actions”. This is a very specific application of PR and I for one hate being called a Spin Doctor, as I prefer to believe we are focussed on building authentic relationships and not selling disingenuous bullshit…
  • There is no consensus on how PR should be measured. In a time when the need for data is so prevalent why have we still not agreed on a compelling form of measurement metrics? There are still so many agencies who use equivalent advertising values (or even worse, ad value times three…) as the formula to measure impact. It’s no wonder PR is still seen as a dark art.
  • PR often exists in a silo, with companies expecting it to be a silver bullet to generate an immediate increase in sales. Without a doubt, a great placement or piece of coverage can lead to a quick boost for a brand; but without the support of a broad marketing plan the needle often falls straight back down. We can continue to say clients “just don’t get it”, but this has been happening for so long that by now we really should have a structure in place to educate clients on the cause and effect of PR, and its place in a broader marketing strategy.

At its core, PR is about the dissemination of information. It is not singularly about publicity, and it is definitely not just about making the front page. It’s being the trusted voice for both clients and consumers.

Today, people’s trust levels in news sources are lower than ever before, in this era of fake news, data harvesting and consumer scepticism. This means we need to tell our stories through a new lens, generating earned opinions, nailing all areas of communication and helping consumers see what’s trusted and what isn’t.

As an industry, we need to start educating our clients on the true value of public relations and the fundamental need to build meaningful relationships between brands and their audiences. If we can do that, in a compelling way, PR just might earn back its seat at the top table.”

No, argues Liz McLaughlin, director, Horizon Communication Group:

McLaughlin says PR understands its purpose and it has never been a one-size fits all industry

“PR does not suffer from an identity crisis. We have always understood our purpose – to help individuals, brands and organisations manage their communication, whether it be to inform, educate, engage or persuade.

In our game there has never been a one-size fits all solution and so we continually evolve to meet the changing needs of our clients and their audiences and leverage the new and emerging channels available to us.

While audiences and channels have evolved, the fundamentals remain the same – we still align our communication programs with the organisation’s objectives, tailor messages for individual audiences and then determine how best to reach them.

We are channel agnostic, we are not bound by a single approach, and as new channels emerge, we integrate them into our offerings.

This is what gives us our edge – we have competed over the years with a range of other disciplines from marketers to management consultants – but our holistic approach to the communication puzzle has enabled us to stay the distance.

We have changed and will continue to do so. Change isn’t an identity crisis but a necessary evolution.

In the words of the 11th Doctor –“times change and so must I. We all change, when you think about it.

“We are all different people all through our lives and that’s okay, that’s good, you’ve got to keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au

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