What is PR? It’s a question that even those working in the industry often seem to struggle to answer? Reputation management, comms, media relations, champagne lunches, spin are all variously thrown around when the topic comes up.
This month has seen Sir Martin Sorrell and Justin King CBE make some interesting comments on the industry and its role in a corporate context.
Speaking in separate interviews with PR Week, they have suggested that PR ‘does suffer an inferiority complex’ (Sorrell) and that it perhaps ‘does need to rebrand itself’ (King); indeed the former Sainsburys chief suggests that the ‘very letters PR suggest fluff and spin’.
Yet King is widely viewed as a comms man through and through, perhaps second only to Richard Branson in his ability to use PR to his advantage. He subscribes to the view that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, as long as it’s turned round as ‘an opportunity to tell a positive story’.
Indeed, two key things that come across from King are the importance of dialogue and listening. He’s reputed to have read every customer email and complaint himself, as well as starting each day with a review of the press coverage.
First rule of public relations – know your public. Understand what they think. Address their complaints.
Second rule of public relations – relate. It’s a relationship, Invest time in it. Talk to your audience.
Perhaps the inability of the profession to articulate its centrality to business is part of what accounts for its ‘inferiority complex’.
So what is the answer? For the WPP CEO, it lies in digital and the new threat (as well as opportunity) presented to brands by social media platforms. The reason this ‘should put good PR at the centre of things’, he says, is because ‘ad agencies do say they can do this stuff but they can’t’.
So why is that? Advertising too involves understanding the customer and understanding the message.
But in the advertising model, the ‘product’ is relatively straightforward; the production of a creative message that attracts, interests, inspires and prompts action.
With PR, the desired outcome is that complex and elusive asset – positive relationships and positive reputation.
Why the PR profession is well placed to deliver it is that we have always been about story telling, content creation and adapting material to different audiences and readerships. To that extent, social media doesn’t really change anything for PR professionals. Monitoring media outlets and channels, and adapting material to maximise opportunities has always been core practice.
What’s changed through social media is the speed and immediacy of publishing – and the ability of readers to respond publicly and equally promptly.
This has heightened the need for comms to be embedded at the heart of business – and it has also increased the immense responsibility that lies on the shoulders of the comms people. The game changer here, as Sorrell points out, is the ability for brands to be destroyed overnight.
The opportunity for the PR profession is that businesses need more than ever, skilled comms professionals who are able to use good judgement to respond appropriately and turn potentially negative situations into positive ones.
Gone are the days of fluff and spin.
This is the era of intellect, integrity and intuition.