Saturday, April 4, 2009

Do we have a language problem in PR?

When you think of PR, what's the first thing that comes to mind?

Admit it, you tend to think of media relations, right?

As I talk to business folks, I still get the feeling that a lot of people think PR is really just media relations.

Gee, I thought PR meant influencing and persuading attitudes, perceptions and behaviors of key stakeholders. More accurately, according to Wikipedia, PR is the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics. In that respect, media relations is just one way we do that. Hasn't it always been that way?

PR is much, much more than just media relations. It includes a number of other disciplines that we all practice on  a daily basis to help our clients achieve their business objectives. Community relations. Social media. Internal communications. Executive communications. Investor relations. And marketing communications, to name a few. 

I think what we really have is a language problem.

For the bulk of the non-PR population, PR=media relations. But we know it to mean and represent so much more.

The key here is that this is affecting our reputation with executives. If management only sees us as media relations experts, it doesn't get us the credibility we need to get a seat at the big table. And it certainly doesn't allow us to demonstrate our many skills and talents for influencing and persuading the attitudes and behaviors of key audiences (and ultimately affecting purchasing decisions, for example). In the end, it usually means we're left out of key management discussions and decisions and our counsel is not sought--a "lose-lose" situation for both management and PR professionals. 

So, given that, how do we start redefining PR for management? If you had 2 minutes to state your case, what would you say?


Anonymous said...

Great post, Arik. I totally agree -- PR has a PR problem. We have failed to tell our OWN story to the public (our clients and potential clients). The story about the totality of our profession. We have not demonstrated that influencing audiences goes far beyond trying to "get ink." And now, as print publications suffer and social media takes off, the PR industry is frequently called "a dying breed."

We need to change the perception - as we are trained to do. If and when I find myself with two minutes to redefine PR for management, I change the language entirely. It's a new world, and we're working in a new landscape. Because "public relations" has been so tightly type-cast as "media relations," I'm moving toward phrases like, "holistic approach" and, "social relations." Increasingly, pr, advertising, online marketing, communications professionals are all doing the same thing - trying to influence the public.

We need to demonstrate the HOW and WHY. We have to start to change the media relations perception by showing CEO's and upper management all of the other ways PR tactics can be used effectively within a larger communications strategy to influence their audience. Then, we need to PROVE It by actually DOING it.

mary said...

As usual Arik, right on the money. PRSA is working on a project this year to provide members tools to help tell this story. But we all need to do it to "turn the curve." Personally I don't do that much "media relations" anymore but everything is "relations" and to the "public."

Arik C. Hanson, APR said...

Kary--interesting that you're using the term "social relations". I think language like that will help us change perceptions and attitudes. However, it needs to be backed up with action, results and outcomes, as you know.

Mary--I'd be curiuos to hear more about what PRSA has up its sleeve as far as tools to arm PR pros. Please share that information when it's appropriate--I think that will be valuable content for us all.

Kirsten Lesak-Greenberg said...

I absolutely think we have a PR problem, but it's not just the language!

Most people that I run into don't even think "media relations." They simply don't know what PR is. How many times have you tried to explain what public relations is to family, friend, etc.?

I've studied this problem pretty extensively and even chose this topic for a class report last semester - going so far as to interview professionals about what they think of the reputation of public relations. I think that you have clearly hit on one problem in public relations: explaining the multiple facets of the industry in terms that the public, our clients and our potential clients will be able to grasp. However, a second overarching problem is the lack of explanation as to what public relations is and does in general. In a way, considering the industry, this confusion is a good thing. If we are doing our jobs correctly, people don't see what we're doing. Good PR is invisible. It's becoming more visible through the use of social media, but traditionally, the only PR that people saw was bad PR - the kind that attracted negative media attention due to bad ethics, etc.

Very interesting and thought provoking post. Thank you for addressing this. I always wonder why public relations professionals don't do more PR for themselves. It's our specialty, after all!



Kirsten Lesak-Greenberg said...

*Invisible meaning, it's not usually proclaimed that a public relations firm is putting on such-and-such event, that article that you are reading doesn't have a disclaimer saying it was taken from a press release, etc. The phrase "public relations" is not brought to the public's eye very frequently.

storyassistant said...

This so reminds me that I owe you and some others a one-page plan about how we might be able to assist in changing these perceptions. Although a media relations guy myself, there is so much more to effectively integrated PR programs. Thanks for this so many ways!

Matt (@storyassistant)

mary said...

Arik, The PRSA project is in the works but I've mentioned your name to Arthur Yann, the VP Comm at PRSA, and suggested he check out this post. Anyone who wants to help PRSA put together the tools to help solve this problem is welcome to contact If we don't all jump in and help solve the issue in a coordinated effort -- the same way we counsel our clients -- it won't happen.

Richie said...

PR is more than just trying and being able to get publicity.
At least that has been true for the type of communications with which I've been involved.

A good public relations person:

* can counsel on internal organizational decisions and strategy
* has the trust and credibility to guide the use of appropriate communication channels
* listens to an organization's community to help best determine needs, opportunities, and challenges
* helps manage reputations, relationships, and change

Bottom-line: public relations > media relations

aimee said...

2 second response: call it corporate communications rather than PR....