When I started talking about "all PR being online PR" it was a hard sell, and the idea was often dismissed out of hand.
I still do these sessions, but it increasingly it seems to be merely stating the obvious. Today, even if the primary focus appears to be elsewhere, every PR campaign has a significant online element, and it is almost impossible to think of an organisation whose reputation is not shaped by an online presence.
From an agency perspective, and as argued by Waddington, it is about what to offer in pitches, and trying to distinguish the PR contribution from big budget advertising. Part of the solution, he suggests, is tied to confidence.
And there is another strand to the debate, and that is taking place inhouse where the blurring of roles between PR, information, marketing, internal comms, human resources and customer service, can be yet more pronounced.
The arguments are well rehearsed, and often seek to distinguish PR from advertising by emphasising its two-way nature, and by moving from reputation management to relationship management. (I am very uncomfortable with "reputation management" as, unless this comes from action, all that PR is offering is spin and distortion).
Waddington tells us: "The public relations industry for its part arguably has the most potent proposition for organisations. It has always worked in the editorial environment, listening and crafting a narrative to enable organisations to build their reputation by earning attention rather than buying it."
But does the "earned attention" argument really stand up? It is related to the 'third party endorsement model' that suggests messages have more credibility if carried by 'independent' media channels. This works if we are talking about buying a TV slot for a commercial, but starts to weaken if the same, or similar, material is presented on a YouTube channel. What PR is saying is that we are better people people so we can make friendlier, less shouty messages - essentially we do the same thing but we are nicer, and you advertising folk will never learn to be nice.
Stuart Bruce writes: "If we are to be seen as a true management discipline as Wadds asserts then we can’t allow ourselves to be defined as mere publicists or as simply part of marketing. Public relations and marketing are totally different disciplines and the confusion arises because both will often use some of the same tactics. It’s quite legitimate for public relations to use paid media."
Yes, but how is PR 'totallly different'? There is an argument to be made, but Stuart confines himself to observing that PR achieves its results with less money.
He is right to suggest we should have gone beyond the 'who owns social media' debate (even if this debate is ongoing in many, if not all, organisations!); it is as useful as trying to define a professional role by saying "we are the ones who use the telephone."
As well as using social media itself, one of the main roles of public relations is to ensure that others within the organisation neither abuse social media nor use it unwisely, as this will inevitably lead to reputational damage.
This is helpful, as it positions public relations as the discipline concerned with values, but that is a difficult trick for agencies to pull off. Yes, there is a clear and important role for someone operating within an organisation, and ideally at a high level but it is not a easily saleable role for those outside.
Jed Hallam makes some strong points:
"There is no ‘lead role’ in communication between a brand and its audience anymore – this ‘power’ has been effectively disseminated across the whole organisation – that’s the challenge. It used to be that public relations was the pipeline to the public, but now that’s no longer true. So the role of PR now has to become more strategic. It has to evolve and has to take centre stage at a more strategic, and senior level."
"... all disciplines are going to have to work in harmony – the whole idea of who ‘owns’ social breaks down when you accept that your social strategy should be aligned with your business and brand strategy (two areas traditionally owned by management consultants and ad agencies, respectively). When social is aligned with those two fundamental parts of a business’s strategy, social splits into two areas;
- Channel tactics
The conversation then becomes split in two – which type of people (with which skill set) need to advise on how to align the social strategy with the wider business, and then which type of people (and with which skill set) then activate that strategy across different social channels? As businesses move closer to becoming more ‘social’ as a whole, this challenge is only going to get bigger. If public relations isn’t careful, it’s going to find itself at the tactical activation end of the chain. Again."
I am increasingly of the view that social media is chipping away at those practices that might best have been described as public relations, and that, with some of the consequences that Jed outlines. Strategic communication is a broad field, encompassing a range of disciplines, requiring a challenging set of management skills, some of which arise from public relations expertise.
It is also about the communication of organisational values, and the processes which align those values to those shared by its disparate stakeholder groups.