Reductionism, public relations and ‘reputation’

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 Tripod.com (this seems be broken, your best best is Amazon).

 

9 thoughts on “Reductionism, public relations and ‘reputation’”

  1. A fine piece of thinking and writing Ged.

    I’m reminded of a (slightly) pre-digital time when the PR industry first started to feel threatened by, and then embrace the involvement of management consultants in ‘reputation management’.

    And also reminded of the increasingly blurred line between ad agencies, media owners, and publishers too. All the models were considered permanent in an age of ‘mass media’ are now breaking down – from how clients ‘bought’ eyeballs, to who ‘publishes’ the media and who ‘speaks’ on behalf of organisations.

    It’s no co-incidence that the ‘history’ of PR coincides with the rise of mass media, when in fact, I’d argue that the skills and the nuances involved in generating publicity, managing reputations, and fostering relationships with stakeholders (despite their fancy new names) have been used for centuries.

    And it’s those skills which lie at the heart of our (ahem) ‘profession’ – all we’re seeing is that the channels to exercise them are changing more rapidly than they ever have done.

  2. Great piece Ged. I’ve been through similar thinking over the course of my career and came to the conclusion that:

    1) Agencies are similar to academics – God forbid, I did English and Philosophy at University, and felt like the child of a broken family. The two departments were totally disengaged with each other, both feeling the other to be less worthy. Consequently, which I did my dissertation of William Blake and Mystical Realism, neither were particularly interested. So when you cross the boundaries, neither clients nor agencies like it, as it breaks the business conventions. Additionally, I felt that agencies were academic in their approach to all of this simply because in general they were (when they were) educating the client and breaking new ground scientifically at the same time (very little to learn from, test and repeat, create the theory and practice, then learn how to measure). I got frustrated with that as generally the clients I was working with were afraid to take risks, even though this is complete Dale Carnegie stuff.

    2) If I really wanted to impact on the reputation of a client, I had to become the client. Unfortunately, as much as I loved working on many of the clients, audiences just wouldn’t buy into me as a valid voice for the client. So I went in-house. Haven’t looked back since.

    Cheers,

    Justin

  3. Great post and I half agree, half disagree.

    1) PR as a brand is damaged.

    Yes of course PR as a brand is damaged, but that’s not new. It was damaged more than 20 years ago when I started and public relations people played around with other names, but PR’s still going strong. Also just about every professional specialism is ‘damaged’. More than 10 years accountants were rebranding themselves as business advisers, but today they are still called/thought of as accountants.

    2) PR philosophy and practice

    I’m not sure I get the PR as a ‘philosophy’ and ‘practice’ as isn’t that just ‘same old, same old’. That’s what’s always happened.

    3)Love the car analogy, but it doesn’t help us get to the ‘solution’.

    4) I don’t quite understand what you’re saying about the PR brand and the tools. Surely everything you list is part of the PR tool kit anyway.

    Where I do agree with you is at the end when you talk about the importance of being able to understand business processes and find the right mix of talent. It’s about that delicate balance right between those different disciplines and making sure you don’t overly emphasise your own specialism when bringing those talents together.

  4. Very thoughtful piece Ged…I am going to have to digest this a bit, but a lot of work and thought here…and that is rare and so my thanks and congratulations.

  5. At LAST some fresh thinking – excellent and very inspiring – as I am in the midst of it it made me realise what I am always saying to clients – look out over that wall, gain a new perspective – your blog made me do so – thanks!!

  6. What were we saying the other day Gedi? Social media has killed independent thought? Not in your case buddy! Am reading and digesting and will comment further but a great piece. Becks

  7. Ironic that as communicators we often cannot clearly communicate what we do or why it’s important.

    Your point (and Stuart’s) about striking a balance/taking the blinkers off to understand what goes on around PR as it changes is the standout for me. In doing so we’ll have to be frank about when PR isn’t the right thing to do, as well as when it absolutely should take the lead. We need to be better understood but first we must understand a whole lot more.

    Good post but it does show the dangers of talking to Wadds over Red Bull.

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