Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Public relations: rethinking its definition and purpose

There are many definitions of public relations. The UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) emphasises the role PR plays in managing reputation and changing perceptions. The Public Relations Society of America prefers to think of PR as a "strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics".

Both definitions attempt to encapsulate everything that comes under the umbrella of PR: media relations, issue and crisis communication, public affairs, corporate communications and so on.

A definition is important as it determines what a membership body offers in terms of training and what it says about the profession.

The CIPR's core messages are that the PR function deserves a seat on the board; that measurement is crucial and that PR speaks for the public in an organisation.

What none of this covers is brand building and brand communication.

Al and Laura Ries make this point in their book The Fall of Advertising ad the Rise of PR.

They believe that PR should build a brand. Once it is established advertising should then take over. They have scores of examples to illustrate when this has worked. They also point to advertising brand campaigns that have failed. They see PR as a marketing function and believe that too often marketing equals advertising. In the closing chapters of their book they argue that PR professionals should be proud to be brand builders: it lays the foundation for success.

Being a brand builder challenges conventional wisdom.

It means that PR should be the voice of the company, not the public.

They point out that building a brand takes time. It can be years before a brand is established as a global force. To achieve this takes a lot of inventive publicity and perhaps one article in a relevant newspaper or magazine.

This means that measurement is not as helpful as it might appear.

They do not discuss the importance of the PR function being on the board but they do make it clear that PR should be involved in brand decisions from the beginning. This would ensure that the brand can get the publicity it needs to establish itself in the mind of the consumer.

None of this means that PR isn't about all the other things that the CIPR and others say it is.

If the authors are right, it does mean that it is worth thinking again about the definition of PR, the courses offered and what the CIPR says in public about the role of PR.

Building a brand involves all the disciplines of PR. You could say it is part and parcel of reputation management.

The difference is that it means PR taking on the marketing function. Instead of sitting in a marketing team it needs to be leading it or sitting outside on an equal footing.

NB. This post also appears on the CIPR's the conversation
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