Neicole CreipeauNeicole Crepeau is a partner in Coherent Interactive, which specializes in web, mobile, and social media design and implementation for small and midsized businesses.

I’m not a PR person. That’s not my background or my training. I don’t have to be a PR person to know that the debate over PR and its definition is the same debate that other disciplines have had, with much the same resolution.

I read the New York Times article that spawned the debate, after seeing posts from my pals Jayme Soulati and Jenn Whinnem. I’ve read many of the subsequent posts, including Gini Dietrich’s very honest assessment of her firm’s own missteps and Heidi Cohen’s collection of 31 definitions of PR.

I understand the emotions of those in the industry, who may feel unfairly attacked or misunderstood. Yet, if those under attack looked around, they’d find other people in other industries suffering the same types of misunderstandings.

PR Is More Than A Title

Take a title from my industry: “Web Designer.” Ask ten people from ten companies to define Web Designer, and you’ll get ten different answers. They’ll all have something to do with creating websites, but that’s about where the similarity ends. It’s not just Web Designers, either. Try searching for a definition of Information Architect, Program Manager, or Product Manager. You’ll find different definitions across the industry, and even within the same company.

This difference in definition becomes a problem when a client seeks to hire a “Web Designer” just as it was a problem for the NY Times author when he went to hire a PR agency. Both the client and the business have ideas of what a Web Designer is, does, and what he/she will deliver. They may have quite different ideas, though.

Jon Buscall has recently blogged, twice, about how web designers are a problem. He’s warned people to watch out for designers running the show, and ruining it. It’s not that web designers are bad, though, it’s that his clients either hired a bad web designer or hired the wrong type of web designer.

The Solution?

Don’t hire a title; hire someone to deliver a specific service. Discuss the specific services that will be provided from the start, so everyone is in agreement.

When we hire web designers ourselves (or project managers, front-end developers, program managers, etc.) we clearly define what we expect from the role, including what the designer delivers. When a client comes to us asking us to design or build their website, one of the first conversations we have is about our process and what we deliver. We explain, for example, that we don’t do branding work or marketing campaigns or advertising campaigns. Our proposals spell out our deliverables, our assumptions, the project constraints, and how we will communicate during the project and make adjustments.

Clients should expect the same from PR firms.

Hiring PR Is Entering Into A Partnership

It takes at least two to communicate–and at least two to miscommunicate. I’ve only read one side of the story of the Southfork Kitchen business relationship failure. It paints the PR agency in a pretty bad light. I’m willing to bet there were some missteps on the side of the client, as well.

In a client-business relationship, the business bears the greater responsibility for setting expectations, communicating clearly about what is possible, and defining what will be delivered. It bears the greater responsibility for asking the right questions, clarifying, setting limits, and keeping the discussion going.

It doesn’t bear the only responsibility, though.

We have a tendency to think, “I hired them, so it’s up to them to deliver and make me, the client, happy.”  But PR, social media consulting, website development–one thing all of these services have in common is that they require a lot of input from the client. You don’t just hire a website company, throw your requirements over the wall, and say “tell us when you’re done.” You can do that, sure. You’ll get a website whose quality is commensurate with what you’ve put into it, very low.

When you hire a PR firm (or a website developer or a social media consultant), you are hiring them for their expertise. That doesn’t mean they don’t need your expertise–the expertise about your business, your customers, your available resources, etc. Plus the ongoing feedback and exchange of ideas and information.

Hiring for these kinds of services means that you are entering into a partnership. Partnerships typically have a honeymoon period, and then their ups and downs. In a partnership, you get to know one another, including one another’s strengths and weaknesses. The little-spoken truth is that businesses, like people, are better in some areas than in others. In a partnership, you compensate and complement one another, to get the job done.

In a good partnership, overall the relationship is rewarding and you are happy with what you get out of it.  In a business partnership, the client pays money for the business’ expertise and services–but it also provides other necessary information, communication, and resources to complete the job.

In the end, the partnership is successful if the clients’ goals are met and if both sides find that the amount spent in dollars, time, and effort was reasonable and within expectations. In the case of the New York Times author, the partnerships weren’t successful. He blames only one party, though. From that, we can draw our own conclusions about the nature of the partnership.

Neicole Crepeau is a partner in Coherent Interactive, which specializes in web, mobile, and social media design and implementation for small and midsized businesses. Using social interaction design techniques, Neicole builds websites that encourage greater social interaction, sharing, and word-of-mouth. She also works with businesses to develop social media strategies to meet the specific goals of the business, with a focus on developing social offers to increase engagement. Neicole blogs at Coherent Social Media.