The job title “publicist” once really meant something. Today, the PR industry is better off without it.
It’s outdated, outmoded and it undervalues the work of contemporary PR professionals.
Generating positive media coverage (publicity) is definitely a core function of public relations professionals. However, it is just one of many core functions and the title “publicist” says nothing of the research, strategy, messaging and many other activities that go into a successful public relations program.
In 2017, PRSA’s then-Chair Jane Dvorak described PR professionals as leaders, strategists and analysts—or, at least, she urged PRSA members to view themselves as such if they want to succeed in today’s complex communications landscape.
“Publicist” is a label that indicates none of those things and fails to encapsulate the work of professional communicators. Here’s why:
1. Publicists produce transactions. PR pros build relationships.
So many marketing and communications outcomes are boiled down to clicks, likes, links and conversions, but on the other side of those transactions are real human beings.
This includes journalists.
Media database software has made it easier to build a big list than a targeted one and to view journalists as email addresses and not real people with real jobs to do. When the media gripes about PR pitches addressed to the wrong names or that are irrelevant to their beats, it’s because pitching has become a transactional. They’re not being communicated to as human beings.
Public relations professionals research the outlets that they’re targeting and the journalists that they’ll be pitching. They connect with them via social media to get to know them better. They read their stories. Only after this effort do they reach out to propose a targeted and exclusive story idea.
Good publicists take this level of care, too, but they are in the minority thanks to the transactional nature of today’s business and marketing practices.
2. Publicity is a tactic. Public relations requires strategy.
PR pros can’t fulfill their role and responsibilities with a tactical mindset. They must think strategically.
Whether your tasks include research, messaging, testing or creative work, strategy drives the choices you make, and those choices drive your campaign results. Have you communicated in a manner that earned your audience’s attention and resonated with them so that their perceptions, beliefs and behaviors were affected?
Publicity generates positive press clippings, minimizes negative headlines—and that’s it. Does that describe what you do to achieve the results you’re responsible for?
3. Publicists publish. PR pros listen.
There is way more content being published that can possibly be consumed. Five years ago, marketer Mark Schaefer gave this scenario the name “Content Shock.” He argued that the pace and volume of content being produced far exceeded the pace and volume of content being consumed.
Good communicators today are creating ways for their target audiences to engage, respond and be heard. These are the communicators who, when a crisis hits, will be able to engage in conversations with their customers or investors rather than swatting at an avalanche of angry or outraged tweets and Facebook posts.
By listening and creating two-way information flow, they’ll have built the relationships and goodwill to weather a storm. These are the brands being stewarded by strategic communicators and not publicists.
4. Publicity is about earned media. Public relations is about all media.
A decade ago, traditional media outlets underwent an implosion. At the same time, podcasts, streaming video, blogs and social media story platforms exploded. In the aftermath, traditional media gatekeepers like the daily newspaper and evening newscast lost their ability to influence public perception at scale.
Before these huge shifts, earned media was the bread and butter of any PR role. Today, earned media is just one of several platforms available to the PR industry. The contemporary integrated approach, sometimes referred to as the PESO Model, combines earned media with shared, owned and paid media. Communicators need to deliver their message across all four of these platforms because their target audiences are consuming information across all four.
As a component of only one of those four platforms, publicity is extremely limited in its scope and value. Communicators who see themselves purely as publicists are being short-sighted in their thinking and likely short-changing their careers.
Retire the term publicist and embrace the role of strategic communicator. It’s old-school and perpetuates a narrow stereotype of what public relations today actually is. In fact, it may be hurting you.