We Need To Talk About PR and Communication….

Quite the week.

  • Bell Pottinger was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) for breaching ethical standards with a campaign that the association’s DG called ‘absolutely unthinkable’.
  • As a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), I was stunned to learn that – according to a press release issued in May (which I’d not seen, to my chagrin) – after grace period one year, members found using AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalents) as measurement will be liable to disciplinary action.
  • As a LinkedIn member, I added a response to an open request for ‘personal take(s) on communications’ core purpose’ -reading the other 15 responses, I saw the words trust, diplomacy, influencing, reputation, behaviours – but nowhere did I see the word ‘selling’.

Recently I published a piece entitled ‘What’s the Value of PR’ (feel free to have a read) in which I proposed 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 – this is an abridged version:

  • The communication industry has an image problem
  • There is no workable, affordable, industry-standard evaluation methodology for communication activity
  • Communication is still chasing its seat at the top table

The first two are self-explanatory.

  • To the outside world, the communication professional is a spin doctor or a celebrity publicist or Edina Monsoon. Those with a greater level of understanding see the role as that of an eminence grise, and not in (if there is one) a good way. On the inside, the communication professional is seen as an event organiser, a clearer-up of messes, a corporate policeman, a scriptwriter and someone to answer queries from difficult customers. The perception problem is not helped by Bell Pottingergate, nor by tweets such as the one seen this morning “You know your (sic) work for a #PR agency when……you hear a champagne cork pop before 9am!”
  • A massive amount of good work has been done, by AMEC and others, to achieve some consensus on the issue of evaluation. The CIPR – and in fairness, the organisation has since indicated that its intention is not to punish – is to publish its guidelines this autumn, and hopes to kill AVE stone dead. The problem is that any form of meaningful evaluation is costly and labour-intensive and for those with pared-back budgets, it’s not feasible. Thus, we are presented with a choice between sacrificing a sizeable proportion of our budget, or doing nothing.

The third is about the function of communication:

  • 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. It may not all be about directly shifting widgets – it could be about 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.

There are other issues, of course – such as the fact that communication works in silos (internal, external, digital, issues management, public affairs) when, quite clearly, to have an holistic view (and to guarantee clarity of message) all communication disciplines should be but different faces of the same object.

Image, function and measurement are the big ones, however, and have been for years. Unfortunately – and with no disrespect to the PRCA or the CIPR, who are herding cats, and making a good fist of it – improvement is up to everyone who works in the industry, and as we’ve learned this week, it only takes one to reinforce and renew the general misconceptions.

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