Reductionism, public relations and ‘reputation’

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I started thinking about this post when I caught up with Stephen Waddington over a cold Red Bull at De Hems in Soho. We were talking about the nature of the public relations sector and the way it has become a craft rather than an industry. Whilst at the top end of the industry there are some multi-million pound enterprises the vast majority of it seems to be one-or-two person operations that have more in common with the crofters who weave Scottish tweeds than they do with major business.

To think about this further, I want to break PR down into a number of components:

  • There is the brand of PR, which I think is broken. It is viewed as; media-specific rather than defined by relationships, tactical rather than strategic (the budget is often assigned after media planning, purchase, creative, advertising etc, corporate communications and corporate/social responsibility (CSR) is used as a sticking plaster when systemic change in product and process is what is really required), low value – which is the reason why we have an industry of PR crofters
  • PR as a philosophy – organisations are becoming more relationship-orientated, the organisation is moving towards the academic definition of PR being about the relationship between an organisation and its publics
  • PR as a practice – particularly on the agency-side of things, technology has accelerated marketing disciplines towards a singularity where different methods are used to achieve the kind of outcomes one would have previously expected from PR campaigns. In essence they have all become PR people. This in turn has brought forward a question of what is a PR business any more? In organisations, its a bit easier; a PR person holds a PR budget, what they spend it one will be largely determined by how much they have and the results of realpolitik internally within the organisation

The brand of PR or public relations holds businesses back in terms of growth and scale. The way it was once put to me was like this: going and buying a campaign from an advertising agency is like going and buying a car from a BMW dealership. You will go to an impressive commercial space, be reassured by the clean room-esque environment of the service area and pay a large amount of money over for your car.

Buying a campaign from a PR agency is closer to buying the same BMW in front of someone’s house as a private sale. You turn up, it doesn’t feel particularly reassuring and pay by banker’s draft at an appropriately discounted price.

PROs have tried to hide behind ethereal concepts like reputation and strategy over-egging the complexity of the process. Reputation in its purest sense has been around since the dawn of civilisation and was the reason why craftsmen and merchants formed guilds way before the ancestors of most PR people were literate. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People distilled much of this wisdom on reputation down into an easy to read book in 1936. Reputation is, as reputation does, and is seeing to have done. As for strategy; the definitive tone was written some 2 and 1/2 millennia ago by Sun Tzu in his 13 chapters of The Art of War.

Ditching the ‘PR brand’ has allowed some agencies a wider range of tools to look after their clients:

  • Managing reputations
  • Encouraging a call-to-action
  • Encouraging behavioral change
  • Reducing post-purchase dissonance
  • Encouraging message propagation
  • Providing customer insight to clients

The tool box to address these issues has become much wider including:

  • Paid, earned, curated and self-penned media content
  • Stakeholder outreach
  • Co-creation, anthropology
  • Online social services
  • Commerce
  • Experiential events
  • Product, process and service design

Classic examples of this is Edelman being listed in Ad Age’s A-list, my own agency Ruder Finn being as much a Webby award-winning interactive agency as a PR consultancy and wearesocial winning ‘PR’ briefs. We’ve also seen this shift in advertising when agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners designed an iPad sleeve that would allow it to use a Sprint 4G mi-fi device, instead of going down the traditional 30-second TV commercial route. Wieden + Kennedy have recently done campaigns for both Old Spice and Coca-Cola that were efforts to develop a dialogue and connection with consumer audiences. One of the smartest people in this area, Philip Sheldrake brands his post ‘PR’ activities as ‘influence’.

A ‘PR brand’ business now means one which is rejecting many of the tools available to effectively and efficiently delivering what clients want. The generalist skills of a PR crafts-person are valuable to have, but they need to be extended much further through lateral thinking, creativity and openness to new techniques.

From the perspective of the PR professional, this has created three problems in its own right:

  • Given that there is a marketing singularity descending on the heartland of public relations (if you think of public relations as the relationships between the organisation and its publics) then PR has become a business ethos; just as in the 1990s people used to talk about marketing organisations (as opposed to sales organisations; despite the fact the marketing-orientated organisations tended to sell more at higher margins with greater success). But are PR professionals equipped to deal with this? Probably not, I would imagine that the body of PR professionals probably mirrors the kind of faults that CEOs levelled at marketers in research conducted by McKinsey and the Marketing Society back in 2004
  • Because a PR person doesn’t understand business processes or product design doesn’t make this a non-viable element of a PR strategy. For many companies the CEO wouldn’t have the skills or the knowledge to do all the tasks that specialist employees do, yet he (or she) can set the direction, find the right people and ensure that the right mix of expertise, talent, processes and products are put in place. Like the CEO, the PR person (particularly if they are agency side) has to work out who to work with and what to do rather than burying their head in the sand about concepts like product design, customer services and commerce on online social platforms
  • Pretty much any consultant needs to remember what they are selling rather than just advice. Whilst most organisations problems are at least partly internal in nature, the answers are often self-evident to those inside the business; what the consultants usually sell is validation, an ‘independent’ external political voice and assurance. Part of the reason why problems (like how to address social media) have complexity wrapped around them is as much about the theatre of assurance as much as anything else. Whilst social media people may be the bête noire du jour of this theatre, PR and marketing people have equally been guilty in times past from marketing funnels to proprietary storytelling and reputation planning models. The theatre is as much an enabler as the pristine BMW dealership showroom or the department store make-up counter with its mock science props like magnifying lamps and lab coat-clad shop assistants. And like the car dealership or the cosmetics counter, unless the product actually does its job the theatre will swiftly become meaningless

More information

The Art of War by Sun Tzu at Project Gutenberg

How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie at (this seems be broken, your best best is Amazon).