What’s the value of PR?

30 years. That’s how long I’ve been treading the Way of the Communicator, seeking communication enlightenment and the meaning of – well, different things actually – currently I’m seeking the meaning of ‘agility’. Which, I’m afraid, has a whiff of new clothes about it. But that’s another story.

In the last month or so, I’ve been reminded (not for the first time) that the communication industry of today is little different to the industry of 30 years ago. The big issues then are the big issues now, and there’s continued talk around them, emphasis on their importance, and yet no coherent, industry-wide, workable solutions. Big issues like – and in no particular order:

  • The communication industry’s image problem
  • The evaluation of communication activity
  • A seat at the top table for the communication function (‘trusted advisor’)
  • The communication silos that the industry works in (internal vs external vs public affairs vs reputation management)
  • The ownership of communication, how it should be described and where it should sit
  • Why is communication necessary – explaining the value that it adds (as distinct from measuring its effects)

Recent triggers have been an article on evaluation, demonstrating that, despite all the great work done by AMEC, there’s still not an affordable, workable, industry-standard communication evaluation model (and that AVE actually ain’t all bad); and a piece that talked about the benefits to be gained from bringing internal and external communication together – the implication being that they are, currently, separate things. Should you so wish, you can read some thoughts on these two things here and here and a previous piece (prescient, but lightweight) on PR’s image problem here.

More recently there was this statement on Twitter. “Public relations (& corporate comms) is/always will be, about ‘reputation, value & relationship building.’ Not selling stuff.” In fairness, it’s not clear whether it’s serious, or whether it’s tongue in cheek – but either way, it’s a sad indictment of our industry – that people actually believe communication is not about selling (and they do), or that people are so aware that it’s a prevalent belief, they find it necessary to poke fun.

Thing is, communication (in all its many and varied guises) is – and should be – wholly about selling stuff. This is where it adds value and gains respect and how it achieves a seat at the top table. Agreed, it may not all be about directly shifting widgets, or encouraging investment, or obtaining planning permissions, or seeking the wherewithal to carry out important social programmes – but it is inextricably linked to the selling process, which, after all, is what makes all businesses, organisations and institutions tick.

To distance communication from ‘selling stuff’ alienates it from a large part of the organisation that it should be serving, shuts it off from key insights provided by sales data and customer contact, demonstrates an elitist, ivory-tower mentality and prevents it taking the holistic overview of the organisation that would make it so valuable. Most importantly, it relegates communication to niche-player status. Marketing, the traditional adversary of communication, with the bigger budgets and the bigger offices, embraces selling – and communication still needs to learn that lesson.

Addressing this ‘we don’t do sales’ mentality would go a long way to identifying solutions to some of the long-standing issues. People tend to take you more seriously if you deliver against the bottom line – or, at the very least, understand where the bottom line is and how you can impact it. That delivery/understanding will undoubtedly help in getting communication the seat at the top table. Being seen to generate tangible business benefit adds weight to a function and helps others place it.

Being familiar with what drives business success – along with wider comprehension of social and political issues, allied with a feel for the media agenda – positions communication professionals as trusted strategic advisers, and moves us closer to where we want to be.

Here’s a piece (from prnewsonline.com, by Seth Arenstein) entitled ‘PR Pros as Strategic Advisers, an Where it Goes From Here.’ Good read, as it assumes the communicator’s role as strategic adviser, even though, to my mind, there’s not enough about ‘selling stuff’ i.e. being a part of the business beyond managing reputation and crafting the message. It does, however, contains the following quotation “You can’t be a separated, subject-matter expert only. You must have tremendous business acumen.” To coin a phrase – that’s what I’m talking about.

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