It takes more than a new definition to change the way people perceive the public relations industry. That shouldn’t be news to anyone. Just because you say something doesn’t mean it will become a reality.
What’s interesting is that this is not a new conversation or problem. It’s been going on since before I earned my bachelor’s degree in PR way back when.
Defining PR is about much more than being able to tell people what you do for a living. The public has a fundamental lack of respect for PR practitioners, and a lot of it has to do with the vagaries of the compensation model.
I have been a part of countless management meetings that tried to tackle this issue, first with Hill and Knowlton and then at GCI Group.
How do we improve profit margins?
Can we change the business model?
We also discussed these issues at seminars with instructors from leading universities, such as the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School. We looked at it from quite a few angles, but didn’t come up anything we could afford to implement at the time.
We pushed the problem ahead, and we’re still dealing with it today.
If we want people to take PR more seriously, we need to make two big changes:
1. Focus on measurement and accountability.
The PR industry has to reward results. We must work harder to develop benchmarks for what we expect from a PR program in both marketing and corporate situations.
We also need to find room in the budget to measure and prove our accomplishments so we can move away from billable hours. If you’ve ever been part of a cross-discipline pitch team that included advertising, you were probably amazed at how much research and testing advertising can afford for a new business campaign. If PR could get even a small percentage of that money, we could arrive at a pay-for-performance model pretty quickly.
If we could find money for better research and measurement—especially quantitative measures of our contributions to real business goals—it would be a huge step forward for the PR industry.
2. Improve training and development.
Our training and professional development needs to go way beyond honing communications skills. The fearless leader of Spin Sucks, Gini Dietrich, wrote a piece a few weeks ago about PR skills you won’t learn in the classroom.
I don’t disagree with her list, which includes business, marketing, budgeting, leadership and a willingness to learn, yet I wanted to shout, “Shouldn’t these subjects already be taught as part of PR?”
If PR practitioners want respect as professionals, we need to better understand how organizations function and what keeps CEOs up at night.
Make no mistake—our job is to deliver what management needs. Our job isn’t to just tell stories or get coverage; these are just tools. Our job is to understand and convince people both inside and outside of our organizations, and act as a bridge between the two.
Forget about wordsmithing. Let’s instead commit to making substantive improvements to change the negative perception of the PR industry once and for all.