Shift the Perception of Public Relations

By: Guest | March 5, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Rick Rice

Changing the perception of the public relations industry requires more than a new definition.

That shouldn’t be news to anyone.

Just saying something will not make it a reality. Smoke and mirrors won’t change anything.

What’s interesting is this is not a new conversation or problem. It’s been going on since before I earned my bachelor’s in PR way back when.

It’s about much more than being able to tell people what you do for a living. There’s a fundamental lack of respect for PR practitioners in the public view, and a lot of it has to do with the vagaries of the compensation model.

I can’t even count how many management meetings I’ve been part of over the years that tried to tackle this issue, first with Hill and Knowlton and then at GCI Group.

How do we improve profit margins?

Can we change the business model?

We also discussed these issues at seminars led by instructors from leading universities, such as the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School. We looked at it from quite a few angles and didn’t come up with much we could actually afford to implement at the time.

So we pushed the problem ahead and we’re still dealing with it today.

In my view, if we want people to take PR more seriously, we need to make two big changes:

We need a greater focus on measurement and accountability.

The PR industry has to move away from selling time and best efforts and move toward being rewarded for results. That requires more work on developing benchmarks for what a PR program should be expected to do in both marketing and corporate situations.

We also need to find the budgets to do measurement and testing to prove what we’ve accomplished so we can start moving away from billable hours. If you’ve ever been part of a cross-discipline pitch team that includes advertising, you’ve probably been amazed at how much research and testing advertising can afford for a new business campaign. If PR could get even a small percentage of that money, we could arrive at a pay-for-performance model pretty quickly.

Finding the budget for much better research and measurement, especially quantitative measurement of our contributions to real business goals, would be a huge step forward for the PR industry

We need to improve training and development.

Our training and professional development needs to go way beyond honing communications skills. Spin Sucks fearless leader, Gini Dietrich, wrote a piece on this a few weeks ago with ‘Five Skills You Need You Won’t Learn in PR Class.’

Huh? I don’t disagree with her list, which includes business, marketing, budgeting and forecasting management, leadership, and a willingness to learn. And yet, I wanted to shout, “Shouldn’t these subjects already be taught as part of PR?”

If PR practitioners want respect as true professionals, we need a better understanding of how organizations function and what keeps CEOs up at night.

Make no mistake—our job is to deliver what management needs. Our job isn’t telling stories or getting coverage. These are just tools. Our job is to understand and convince people both inside and outside of the organization and act as a bridge between the two.

I say forget about wordsmithing. Let’s instead commit to making the substantive improvements needed to change the negative perception of the PR industry once and for all.

What do you think?

Rick Rice is an independent consultant with more than 35 years in public relations working in both corporate and agency jobs. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and non-U.S. governments. Most of his work has been in corporate and crisis communications. You can find Rick on Twitter or learn more at his website.

  • ginidietrich

    We started this conversation on Google+ and I’ll extend it here. I feel like we’ve been having this same conversation for years. Internally we finally figured out how to measure our results and how to show our averages when doing business development. Those kinds of numbers make business leaders salivate and, suddenly, they’re giving us almost more information than we need.
    But, like I said on G+, it’s easy for us to do because the leader of Arment Dietrich believes in everything you say here and is leading the firm toward measurement, accountability, and no billable hours. Not everyone has that luxury.

    •  @ginidietrich We need more people and leaders to adopt your view. The problem is that most agencies are so heavily dependent on the  inverse pyramid business model – where the lowest paid people’s billable hours are the most profitable – that they can’t break out of it.
      The other problem is that most clients don’t want to spend the money on benchmarking and measuring. The tools are out there to do this more easily and at lower costs I just keep pushing people to use them.
      I also think small and mid-sized agencies need to find new, more effective ways to do the training. Even the big firms don’t do that well enough. You’re doing something important with SpinSucks Pro.
      Thanks for sharing the post today!

      • ginidietrich

         @RickRice Well, the vision of Spin Sucks Pro is to get into the big agencies so we are training them on better, and more effective, ways of doing things. Not to say we have all the answers (which is why we have our friends like you helping out), but I came from the big agency. The most professional development we got were one day seminars with big names. This is meant to educate and train every day.
        On the note about not spending the money on benchmarking and measurement, that just seems ridiculous to me. Either we can track results and you can show the board (or your bosses) how much you’re contributing to both the top and bottom lines and you can get promoted. Or not.

        •  @ginidietrich At the big agencies I’ve seen some fits and starts on better training but never enough and always second place to hitting utilization targets because profits come first. The times it works best is when training is baked into the managers’ compensation – if you don’t provide the required amount it comes out of your bonus. That isn’t an easy sell at the holding company level but I’ve seen it work and improve profit margins. It can be done.
          My friends who run smaller firms would love to provide more training but don’t have the internal resources. Online resources are going to be great for them.
          If PRSA wants to lean on something they should push on the measurement initiative. I know they have something about it on their website but the last time I looked the most recent links from 2007 studies. A bit stale?
          We’re doing better on the marketing PR side in terms of measurement. Corporate communications needs to get its butt in gear and stop being afraid of things like public opinion surveys.

  • ShannonRenee

    @lizscherer how you doing dear…haven’t tweeted you in a bit…brunch soon?

    • lizscherer

      @ShannonRenee Hello Honey. About to head into crazy ass land. This weekend is no good. Maybe next b4 shit hits fan.

  • DonaldinDC

    Objective-oriented measurement & accountability… RT @ginidietrich Shift the Perception of PR in Two Ways by @rtrviews

  • RTRViews

    @nooneyouknow Thanks for sharing the post, Adam. It was nice of @ginidietrich to let me put it up there.

  • RTRViews

    @jfsandor Glad you liked the post Janet. Thanks for sharing it.

  • I invited a Syracuse PR student to guest post last week about defining PR from her perspective. When she told me her classes were all taught by working practitioners I began to wonder who vets the curriculum and determines it’s acceptable for young professionals?
    This post prompted my return to that ponderance…who/how/what is being taught in the schools today to prepare the up-and-comers better?
    The problem I see is that students reside within a PR curriculum instead of taking every single business class possible.

    •  @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing I’m not familiar with what PR students are being taught these days but you’re right there should be much more emphasis on business classes.
      Back in the Ice Age when I got my BS in PR (perfect degree!) we only had one communications class a semester freshman and sophomore years with the rest of the time in Liberal Arts courses. In our junior and senior years one-third of our credits still had to come from other disciplines, like marketing and business administration. It was a good balance – at least it has worked for me.
      If colleges aren’t providing that kind of rounded education they’re not doing their students any favors.

    • ginidietrich

       @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing Isn’t that the case with anything, though? The education system is made up of professors who don’t have real world experience. So they teach theory. And we get the real experience when we join the real world.

  • lizscherer

    @davidsvet King me. 😉

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