I recall the episode as if it were yesterday. A woman stood up at a meeting of a local professional organization I attended many years ago and proudly declared that she was the organization's public relations professional. She then went on to talk about her work, referring to it as publicity.
Several years later, I was dining with the owner of a small San Francisco-based public relations firm. He relayed with considerable enthusiasm the achievements of his staff in generating press coverage for a bevvy of well-known local groups, in the process touting his database of media contacts as a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace. When I responded that his work sounded more like publicity than public relations, he chortled, “I don’t care what you call it, as long as the clients pay for it.”
Fast forward to the present day. I can’t help but notice the headlines of stories I scan, with references to the “PR machine,” “PR pitches,” and “PR power girls,” among others, enticing readers to consume yet more variations of the theme that public relations consists solely of the art (and science) of generating press coverage (including social media) on behalf of clients–in other words, seemingly perpetually equating public relations is publicity.
While the industry, led by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), struggles to define public relations, I believe we can say definitely and energetically what it is not. Publicity is NOT public relations. And it's imperative we differentiate the two disciplines, lest the indispensable role public relations can and should fulfill in all organizations, for-profit and non-profit, large and small, continue to be trivialized.
Lest I be accused of being anti-publicity, let me highlight its importance. Media coverage on a product, service, company, or cause is vital for helping the sponsoring organization attain its business objectives. Print and broadcast coverage far surpasses advertising in terms of credibility and delivering value for money spent. Skilled publicists (and I considered myself to be one earlier in my career) are invaluable and deserve whatever lofty fees they can charge.
Public relations has a far different orientation, as noted in PRSA’s aforementioned campaign to redefine the function. Responsibilities include building and managing relationships with an organization's key audiences (both internal and external); overseeing its reputation (or what's often referred to as "managing the corporate brand"); and serving as the organization's conscience. Publicity and media relations are part of this equation, along with a variety of other functions.
The mandate of public relations, therefore, is much broader than that of publicity. And it's much more vital, in my opinion.
All the press coverage or awareness (however that is defined) in the world doesn't make a difference if a product is poorly made, a program ill defined, a strategy poorly executed, or simply if bad decisions are made. I've learned this lesson over and over again during my career as a public relations consultant and educator, and have seen it amplified in my research on organizational behavior and leadership. And I see it reinforced every day. Consider any one of the high profile organizational crises that we’ve witnessed over the last several years. As the leaders of these organizations have suffered public floggings for major missteps, their respective organizations have suffered. One could make a convincing case that had public relations counsel been available, on the mark, and heard by those making key decisions, much pain and suffering could have been avoided.
I confess that my concept of public relations is far less concrete and attractive to professionals and non-professionals alike than the publicists' bounty of coverage. Nonetheless, I remain unshakeable in my belief that a battle must be waged to rescue public relations from the publicity ghetto and all that it signifies if the profession as a whole is to thrive.
Click here to read the second part of this blog post.