The future of public relations: a rebrand?

Those that advocate the view that PR and advertising will be subsumed into a hybrid communication discipline and those who believe the discipline should mint itself a ‘new’ name, like ‘communication professionals’, are in grave danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What about the most basic tenet of PR, that which constitutes it being a discipline that can help organisations change so they better meet society’s expectations?

The future of public relations

Are we to lose this fundamental quality that gives PR its overwhelming POD as part of this process of, as a new study implies, ‘dropping the PR’ from what we call ourselves?

These topics of how PR should be termed and how will it evolve in the context of other business communication disciplines were raised again recently by the appearance of Ogilvy PR’s thought provoking Peripheral Visions Study (in itself a terrific example of applying the strategic alliance methodology to gain enhanced credibility, due to its partnership with the IABC). The study is based on extensive research amongst Australian PR and communication professionals.

PR and marketing: happy singalong

The notion that public relations and advertising will be “merged into hybrid/blended agencies” was one finding (60% agreement), but from this I’ll extrapolate that this belief is not just relevant to agencies. I can’t see how agencies can exist in this hybrid form if the reality isn’t reflected in the manner in which in-house communication teams are organised.

However, this raises the interesting question of whether agencies do now, and should in the future, reflect the way organisations structure their business communication (e.g. marketing and PR, primarily) teams. To the best of my knowledge PR and marketing, though clearly connected, genuinely run their own shows. And this is reflected in agency structures (i.e. PR and marketing delineation).

Of course, the spanner in this mix is a snotty little ingénue called social media. Everyone is claiming the right to run this show. PR (over marketing) ‘seems’ to have the inside running, but I’d be careful about punting too much on the PR pony. I can envisage social media-specific departments within some organisations, reporting through neither the PR or marketing silo, but direct to whoever has responsibility for all three areas.

There is so much synergy between fundamental aspects of PR and social media that I can’t see the logic in the two being separated, but marketers can be a self-focused bunch and if it can help turn a buck, they’ll want it.

Two of the big issues that will need to be addressed if blending the PR and marketing disciplines into an integrated ‘brains trust’ are:

  • Marketing tends to be more about brand; PR tends to be more about reputation
  • Best practice PR is based on two-way symmetrical communication; marketing is predicated on turning a buck. The two don’t always align.

Whilst two-way symmetrical communication is a pipe dream for many and not commercial enough, for me at least it provides an ethical, inspiring target to aim for.  Based on the two-way symmetrical mindset, I wonder if PR is actually anti-economic growth, based on the supposition that growth has a greater upside for the well off and increases the disenfranchisement of the less well off. Economic growth also tends to come with a larger population and accelerated environmental degradation.

As Jonathan Franzen wonders very, very loudly in his most recent riff-fest, Freedom, is an increasing global population the root of all evil?

Marketing, of course, is all for economic growth, more money making products, more money in the pockets of those who own companies etc.

It’s a political, social and moral discussion. Can PR and marketing ever really sleep together in comfort? The s*x might be tempestuous and astounding, but will they respect each other in the morning? Perhaps more to the point in the longer term, what will the kids be like? Social media freaks and born with an iPhone in their hands, that’s for certain.

Can you blog in utero?

Giving PR a new name

76% of respondents to the report’s survey agree that we’ll refer to ourselves as communication professionals rather than PR professionals. Kieran Moore, Ogilvy PR Australia’s CEO and my inordinately intelligent and insightful ex-boss, got it right when she said PR needs to redefine rather than rename itself.

“While we don’t agree with dropping ‘PR’ from our discipline, we think this shows that companies, organisations and individuals are demanding authentic communications advice that focuses on the reality of reputation – in the real world context of business and organisational needs,” said Kieran.

It isn’t an easy issue to come up with an answer to. So many people think PR is media relations alone, due to the evolution of the discipline, that I can’t envisage a day when the term public relations will ever be perceived as what it really is:

A wide ranging business communication discipline that, on a strategic level, encompasses PR, strategic planning, marketing communication approaches and more, whilst on a tactical level is everything from media relations and social media to event management and crisis management to employee communication and positioning.

So I fully empathise with those that want to change the name. But with the wealth of academic work that has been developed to underpin our discipline, including my much-nagged about two-way symmetrical communication hobby horse, I just don’t think it’s worth the agony.

And what the hell is a ‘communication professional’ anyway? As a brand, it pretty much sucks deeply. Marketers will laugh at that brand. It tries to say everything and says nothing.

Muscle up PR pros. Stop bitching at your name and go about fighting for territory and delivering quality.

This is the same way I look at brands. You can call it what you like. You can create whatever logo you want. You can conceptualise the most creative, eye catching ad campaign in the world. But if the product or service itself is weak, then THAT is the brand, that is the outcome and no matter what clever marketing spin you put on it, that product or service will flunk.

And don’t come crying to your PR pro when your lack of rigour in looking at various aspects of your new gun product or service comes back to bite you for some crisis communication or positive media placement. Think bigger picture. Think, in fact, PR 101 two-way symmetrical communication.

Do you think PR should change its name? What are your thoughts on this hybrid communication discipline that it has been posited may emerge? Why all the talk about PR’s name change? What will it change? Is it a superficial, ultimately hollow move, which is basically what I argue, or is it something of greater substance?

Public relations is more important than making money

A perfect storm has erupted over the issue of whether PR should, partially at least, be measured on its ability to drive sales and/or generate profits. Public relations is about building mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders. Its contribution to business-related outcomes is significant. Better: stakeholder relationships, organisational reputation, awareness of and trust towards or of the organisation and/or its products/services.

What outcomes should public relations firms and in-house be measured on?

But I’ve posed this question: are public relations’ firms and their in-house sisters’ fixation with this approach hindering their ability to generate credibility for itself and not sufficiently pragmatic when being used by profit-driven organisations?

Well, through numerous public relations marketing LinkedIn groups, and in personal emails to me, the differences and caveats and justifications have been coming in thick and fast. Some of the fallout has been generated by me asking why isn’t making money a KPI for public relations jobs?

This question was prompted by insights from The Annual Insight Into The Communication Profession 2011, undertaken by the only Australian recruitment consultancy specialising in corporate affairs and communication executives, Salt & Shein. The survey identifies that profit-related KPIs are barely visible for those in Australian public relations jobs.

Why PR is should not be measured on turning a buck

Professor Jim Macnamara*, Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, leads the teaching of PR at Australia’s leading public relations education university. He is virulently opposed to the notion of PR being measured on its profit or sales-generating outcomes.

“While some marketing PR likes to, or would like to, show how it drives sales and profits, and it is important to have objectives related to the overall goals and objectives of the organisation, the reality is that sales/profits are the outcome of multiple influences and activities,” says Professor Macnamara.

“This includes distribution strategy and effectiveness; the sales channel and its work; pricing; competition, product/service quality etc. And this is even before you get to marketing comms.

Any one of these factors, or a combination of them, can significantly affect and determine sales and profits. Then within communication, there are the influences of advertising, promotions, online, etc that are all intermingled and combined in consumers’ minds.

“It is very difficult to show direct causation by PR in sales and/or profits because of this fusion of multiple influences, information sources and experiences.

“The same is true of advertising – although the advertising industry typically has failed to acknowledge this and misled management. The high cost and lack of proof of advertising’s impact has come home to roost and resulted in many organisations turning away from big budget advertising.

“I don’t get why PR is obsessed by, or is expected to generate, sales and show direct correlations to profits. Many other specialist functions in organisations are not judged this way. For example, we don’t expect HR, or the legal department, or the production department, or even the CEO to generate sales and profits. We recognise that they contribute to ultimate success – but they do so through specialised functions.”

But then again, who’s paying the PR bills?

Increasing the quality of stakeholder relationships, encouraging them to buy into an organisation’s vision, along with getting stakeholders’ perspectives so that an organisation can evolve, are all vitally important elements of public relations. That’s why PR is so much more important to an organisation than marketing.

But can we balance these seeming potentially oppositional, or certainly tension-rife, dimensions? Can we undertake best practice (and some may say, idealistic) public relations whilst still doing what some organisations say we must do – undertake activity to help make money?

  • “I teach this to students at Notre Dame. PR is about the triple bottom line, sure. But when it boils down to business, it’s about making money and keeping shareholders satisfied (just the bottom line).” – Dr. Greg Smith, Senior Media and Communications Officer, Department of Training and Workforce Development, Western Australia
  • Not having a profit or sales-generating focus is one of the reasons why PR is relegated to a back row in business says an  an international branding and communications expert from Germany
  • “I think we’re deficient if we don’t include a financial component in any plan we propose. [The difficulty] should not deter us from reflecting or having an explicit financial objective as part of that program.” – Alan Smith, corporate communication consultant
  •  Another PR and marketing professional says that good PR should drive sales as that is what the client wants.

These are just a few recent perspectives taking a divergent approach to Professor Macnamara. Clearly some head clearing dialogue going on here.

Professor Macnamara wonders, however, in response to those who say PR can and should be measured in terms of sales and profits – how do they actually measure and prove that?

“I would be very surprised if they have any rigorous valid method of proving what they claim,” says Professor Macnamara. “The reality is that most marketing PRs who claim to deliver to the bottom line measure their efforts in terms of advertising value equivalents – a totally invalid correlation of hypothetical cost and value that bears no relationship to sales or profits or even effectiveness.”

If we are putting out a media release, or holding a launch event which thousands attend or initiating a Facebook promotion – all about a product or service…surely we are trying to make a sale, turn a buck et al. If this is the case, and despite PR at a higher level being more important than making money (maybe don’t’ tell your CFO this, though, okay?), then why the hell don’t we have financial KPIs as part of this program?

And if we have them as part of this program, why not embedded into certain PR roles at a deeper level?

Public relations is about building relationships

“A further key factor is that public relations is largely directed at other [non-profit relevant] objectives,” takes up Professor Macnamara again. “In most conceptualisations and models, the primary raison d’être of PR is building and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders such as employees, shareholders, investors, communities, etc. Thus, PR has a longer-term focus and a different strategy in most cases.

“Turning all relationship building and maintenance activities into money-making opportunities, or making this a key objective of public relations, is not authentic (we don’t really care or want to support communities, etc, we just want to make money) and is effectively a retreat to the early industrial era of Vanderbilt and Friedman. They said the only objective of business was making money and the only loyalty was to shareholders.”

Let’s define public relations

“As long as PR people think they can be sales and marketing people, they will struggle,” points out Professor Macnamara.  “Publicity creates awareness, but it does not sell things. Nor do events, newsletters, community sponsorships etc. You need distribution channels, good pricing strategies, quality products and services and sales people to sell. Sales and profits are their KPIs.

“I actually think it is quite dangerous for PR to try to tie itself to sales KPIs. It will inevitably fail to show clear evidence of direct causation and, thus, will be seen as failing, relegating us to being a second or distant third or fourth cousin to advertising, sales promotion and marketing.

“KPIs and objectives have to be functionally relevant and directly causal. That’s not to say that PR cannot CONTRIBUTE to sales and profits. What does it contribute?

  • Relationships
  • Reputation
  • Awareness
  • Trust.

“Then let’s measure those.”

Public relations theories, practices, critiques

What did you think of the perspectives in this post? Do you support PR sticking to its predominantly relationship management and reputation enhancement imperatives? Or are there other aspects that you think PR should strive to achieve? What is your professional experience in the context of these dimensions?

*Jim Macnamara, PhD, FPRIA, FAMI, CPM, FAMEC became Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney in 2007 after a 30-year career working in journalism, public relations and media research, which culminated in selling the CARMA Asia Pacific media analysis firm which he founded to Media Monitors in 2006. His most recently published text is ‘Public Relations; theories, practices, critiques’. Jim can be networked with on his LinkedIn profile and on Twitter @jimmacnamara. 

PR and marketing: integrate or divide and conquer?

This is a guest post by Sue Corlette*, an experienced professional communicator and educator.

It’s interesting to observe that the traditional divide between the marketing (paid messages) and public relations (third party endorsement) professions still seems to be alive and well judging by their positioning in most organisations.

Each profession is usually either placed in an independent organisational silo, or PR is positioned as a subset ‘add-on’ of marketing, which as we know inevitably leads to turf wars. However this need not be so in practice and it is worth the effort to step across the silos, as the following case study demonstrates.

Sue Corlette

Melding public relations and marketing

In 2007, the National Prescribing Service (now known as “NPS – Better choices, Better health”) conducted a ‘Get to know your medicines’ national campaign to educate people on the wiser use of medicines. The campaign featured two x two week TVCs and a direct mail out of campaign resources. The campaign spanned several teams within NPS and the resulting strategy became a milestone in collaborative success.

This was the third campaign of its kind and was astoundingly successful compared to previous campaigns for three reasons:

  • We used real people (PR tactic 101 = third party endorsement) in the TVCs
  • We introduced a  newsletter / order form  targeting both consumer and health professional audiences. This replaced  multiple letters sent with sample resources  to segmented mail lists of health professional and consumer audiences  marketing tactic 101 =  DM)
  • We extended the DM concept by asking third party stakeholders to distribute it on our behalf in addition to us distributing it via purchased mail lists.

The newsletter was key to the campaign’s success because it articulated both the consumer and health professional perspective.

In so doing it straddled the sometimes precarious divide between consumer and health professional organisational viewpoints.

It also ensured that the messages consumers were hearing in the TVCs would be reinforced by their health professional. It included statements from third party individuals and organisations to reinforce messages and reassure readers that the purpose of the campaign was legitimate; and it had an inbuilt ‘evaluation tool’ – a resource order form.


  • this was the first time all the resources were aggregated in one simple form that did not require time-poor health professionals to order online through multiple pages
  • the inclusion of third party organisations and individuals gave further reassurance to readers who didn’t already know NPS that the campaigns were legitimate and credible
  • all people featured were also media spokespeople
  • third parties signed off when satisfied the messages were consistent with their perspective and organisational values
  • by default, the sign off process ensured that messages were clarified and stakeholders were aligned
  • it included ‘a call to action’ resource order form to measure its effectiveness
  • the number of orders generated from the form would indicate if readers were willing to support the campaign.

How did it measure up?

235,000 newsletters were distributed (to an estimated 80% of the target audience) at a cost of $23,000.

  • 613,119 resources were ordered during the campaign compared to 257, 714 for the twelve months prior
  • 8,000 organisations placed orders, compared to 1,000 in the previous 12 months
  • The insertion strategy extended reach to 300,000, generating 8,000 orders
  • So successful was the response and feedback to the first newsletter, two more newsletters followed to keep recipients informed of the campaign progress and NPS received further funding for a subsequent 2008 campaign, “Generic Medicines are an equal choice”
  • The campaign received several industry awards including:

– 2008 International Association of Business Communicators Golden Quill Award for multi audience communication
– 2008 Public Relations Institute of Australia National Golden Target Award, Health Promotion
– 2008 Marketing Institute of Australia state award for Get to know your medicines national campaign.

What do you think about the integration of marketing and public relations approaches in this case study? Is there a clear line between the two professional communication disciplines, or is it pretty grey? What do you think about the way Sue has outlined the approach taken to campaign measurement? I’d really like to know how you set benchmarks for public relations and marketing activity.

About the author

Sue Corlette MA Org Comms, Dip PR, MPRIA

*Sue Corlette is a senior corporate communications and marketing executive with extensive experience in strategic planning and the collaborative implementation of successful, award winning outcomes for a diversity of businesses, both in the not-for-profit and commercial sectors. Whilst working in various corporate communications roles Sue has spent the last six years also writing course curriculum and teaching public relations and marketing for the vocational and higher education sectors.