How a name change and a public commitment to PR might influence how Public Relations is perceived in 2019 and beyond
Public Relations is having a moment. The practice is riding on a wave of new confidence that appears to be more than a casual and possibly brief departure from designations such as ‘strategic communications’.
PRWeek reported in October that M&C Saatchi PR replaced the 'PR' in its name with 'Public Relations' because “the abbreviation of the discipline to PR has caused it to lose its original meaning.”
The Holmes Report then ran a story on Golin reaffirming their commitment to being a PR firm, “a repositioning that comes when most of its major rivals have dispensed with the nomenclature in favor of such terms as 'strategic communications' and 'integrated marketing'.”
Two major networks singularly concerned with raising the profile of PR and/or Public Relations. All while industry observers and commentators keep reminding us of the pride of being in PR.
Let’s try to unpack this.
First, PR and Public Relations are largely synonymous. The slight differences that may exist are insignificant to the extent that no one outside the communications industry, clients included, really cares.
Second, the announcements come as uncertainty about the old consulting model lingers on.
And third, they are made against the backdrop of accelerated political, societal and economic change, the Trump fake news presidency, recent PR ethics scandals and eroding public trust in institutions.
It's the time when (thought) leaders are born. Journalism clearly rose to that challenge but can the same be said about Public Relations? Wouldn’t this be an excellent time to tackle the many image problems of PR head on, adopt a hundred percent focus on client needs and deliver (and talk about) high-quality work instead of engaging in semantics?
Wait, I am not being critical of M&C Saatchi and Golin. They clearly know what they’re doing. This is about sending a signal.
Here is what M&C Saatchi Public Relations Global CEO Molly Aldridge said about their move: “In a ‘confused and converging communications industry’, the agency wanted to ‘provide clarity and simplicity on who we are and what we do’".
Fair enough. There is confusion out there about the changes in the client-agency relationship. Hence the return to long-established core competencies, which serves two objectives, differentiation in a highly competitive field and a show of defiance: We do Public Relations and that’s a good thing. It’s about first-mover advantage; about saying out loud what others might sense is in the air but haven’t articulated yet. That’s why this has staying power.
Golin’s statement deserves a closer look, too. Their repositioning emphasizes ‘PR’ as antonym to 'strategic communications' and 'integrated marketing'.” The point here is that while PR and Public Relations are by and large identical, PR/Public Relations and strategic communications are not interchangeable: the former is a subset of the latter, just like media relations and crisis communications.
Golin of course never claimed a departure from strategic communications; they reaffirmed what had been their focus all the while: PR. But to make a public statement about it is remarkable and certainly no accident. The only way to read this: it's back to the basics.
Two players, two statements meant to create competitive advantage by stating what looks obvious at first and perhaps overly simplistic but does differentiate them in an increasingly crowded field of specialist agencies.
A question remains: can these agencies score by publicly stating a return to PR’s original concept (and the name) without even mentioning the main issue our industry is facing: the profound lack of trust? When you make noise about your name change or new focus on core competencies, isn’t that the moment to explain how you intend to deal with that?
I write this as a firm believer in the positive effect of the changes we witness. The old concept of PR is discredited – good riddance. It can’t return because it’s a losing proposition in the digital age. Robert Phillips made that point in his 2015 book ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’, which advocates the end of spin in the age of individual empowerment, showing how the PR industry has abused and exhausted trust.
“Trust is not a function of PR. It is an outcome, not a message”, he wrote, adding that “trust is deeply behavioral, complex and fragile and hard-won every day, by actions, not words.” He states that “the revolutionary times in which we live means that there will never be a return to ‘old trust’ ... New strategies are therefore needed that speak to the world of tomorrow, not the world of yesterday.”
New strategies. For years, agencies have spent time and money on restructuring and upscaling the consulting offer to get hold of that coveted 5th seat in the boardroom that management consultants seem to occupy with ease. And so they changed their company names or designations to reflect that new strategic focus.
This wasn’t just to secure high-profit margins. When one single tweet by the CEO can drag down the valuation of a company, PR agencies may see their good work being destroyed in the blink of an eye.
Just look at Elon Musk’s Tesla troubles this past year and ask yourself: who would he take comms advice from, if anyone at all? Hint: it’s not the “lesser mortals" as Bob Lutz, the PR industry’s favorite auto spokesperson of the old days wrote. It comes down to trust. Investing in strategic comms and crisis response capacities, in senior talent and new models for data analysis and measurement is the way to earn that trust with those calling the shots.
Could that be the answer? Management consultants may compete in strategic communications but not in Public Relations. That space could be defended if PR remained execution focused while placing a greater premium on strategic counsel.
In the end, however, we must remind ourselves that things are moving fast. The old titles and designations are on their way out if you want to believe Sir Martin Sorrell. Speaking on the future of PR at PRovoke18 in October, he went through enormous pains to avoid uttering the word ‘public relations agency’ altogether. Instead he emphasized the importance of data and content as well as media planning and buying, all under the roof of ‘a new kind of agency’.
It’s the answer you would expect from a numbers-driven ad man. But he’s got a point: what matters is not what’s on the label but what’s in the package.
Either way, the only conceivable future for PR (and communicators in general) lies in holistic, strategic and therefore integrated communications. In making sense of the ever increasing amount of data and adapt to the speed at which opinions are formed and thrown overboard. And in having the right talent at all levels to execute strategies, monitor their impact and make adjustments when needed.
Whether that is offered by a PR agency, public relations agency or strategic communications consultancy might just be completely irrelevant in a year from now. What matters is the ability to generate real business outcomes while staying ethical. That’s the strategic task of the day. Mastering it will shift perceptions of the industry at large and create greater opportunities for all.