PRSA defines PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Somehow, this manages to be both overly broad and excessively narrow. It implies PR’s participation in all manner of business relationships, while confining the profession to the limited function of relationship-building.
Of course, in practice, the definition of PR has been far more narrow. By and large, the job of PR professionals has been to help companies attain media coverage and to influence the tone of that coverage. PR professionals have understood this definition to be a limiting one for decades, but still haven’t managed to come up with anything better.
Go ahead and deny it until you’re blue in the face. The fact remains that in the minds of 90+ percent of PR clients (particularly midsize companies and smaller), PR is media relations. Nothing more, nothing less. The rest of what most PR firms do today is better known to clients by a different term: marketing.
That’s fine if we want PR to be just another tool in the marketer’s toolkit, no different from SEO or conversion rate optimization or digital advertising. But if PR seeks recognition as a strategic discipline and management function—which it has always held itself up to be—simply serving as the news media’s junior partner is no longer sustainable.
We have to aspire to more than that, not just in words, but in actions. We can absolutely do it. Before we do, we must first reassess our profession’s history.
Edward Bernays vs. Ivy Lee: Choosing the Wrong Horse
Seventy-five years ago, PR was faced with two fundamentally different paths to follow. These approaches were championed by two men who have been called the “fathers” of PR: Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee.
Lee was a former journalist who took a straightforward approach to helping his clients by building relationships with the media. Bernays, whose uncle was Sigmund Freud, had more ambitious goals for PR. He wanted to elevate it to the status of a true profession, just like law or medicine, built on the science of understanding what makes people tick.
Lee’s most famous contribution to the profession was his “Declaration of Principles,” in which he promised journalists that his goal was to provide them with accurate information, and not to manipulate facts to his client’s advantage.
We aim to supply news; this is not an advertising agency. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most carefully in verifying directly any statement of fact.
Bernays, on the other hand, took pride in using audience research and social psychology to influence behavior. He called it “engineering consent” and considered it critical to democracy, having played a key role in the U.S. government’s efforts to win public support for America’s entry and participation in World War I.
Modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people … composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas…
Bernays aimed for PR practitioners to become experts in understanding these prejudices, symbols, cliches, and formulas to better connect with the audiences they sought to influence.
The PR profession ultimately took the simpler, less controversial path of Lee, led by organizations such as the PRSA, which was founded in 1947 and has been the industry’s top professional association ever since. By and large, PR practitioners tethered their profession—and their value as professionals—to the news media.
This approach was all well and good as long as traditional media prospered. But as the media industry has fragmented and lost influence relative to other forms of communication, the conventional approach to PR has struggled along with it.
Facts are facts. U.S. newsroom employment has declined by 25 percent in the past decade, with 30,000 fewer reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers in newsroom jobs. In inflation-adjusted dollars, ad revenues for the news media have been in a constant state of decline for 40 years. Fewer journalists are around to cover stories, which means PR professionals have to work harder and spend more time than ever to get their attention. Then, if they do cover you, that coverage has fewer readers or viewers and less influence than before. It’s a vicious cycle.
Where Do We Go from Here? Back to the Future
The question that troubles me most is this: When you start extending the definition of PR beyond media relations, what is truly unique to PR? If you look closely at the way many public relations firms describe themselves today, it’s like you’re staring at the hole in a doughnut.
Some global agencies make a big deal of calling themselves “progressive PR firms.” Or they portray themselves as integrated agencies that are “earned first.” But these definitions fail to resonate. They don’t differentiate in a meaningful way between what’s PR and what isn’t—and they don’t explain why clients should care about the distinction.
So, where do we go from here? Suffice it to say that PR cannot remain so tightly anchored to the news media. That’s why I would argue that our profession should look for inspiration not to the ideas of Lee, but to those of Bernays. The Bernays path—one focused less on the “hows” of tactics and more on the “whys” of strategy—is the better one for our future.
I’m not suggesting we should dive into some of the darker arts advocated by Bernays; his legacy is far from untarnished. But I do believe we should take a step back from the practice of media relations to ask ourselves, “What is the business goal of media coverage?” Because achieving the business goal is what’s important to PR clients; the coverage doesn’t matter if it doesn’t do that.
What is the business goal of media coverage? Most clients would tell you it’s visibility. But that’s only what they think they want; it’s not what they actually want. If our clients simply wanted visibility—if they just wanted to raise awareness—it would be more cost-effective for them to buy highly-focused ads and serve them to their target audiences.
What our clients are really looking for is authority. They are looking for credibility. Ultimately, they are looking for one thing above all else: trust.
Our clients need to be trusted in the marketplace, or they won’t be able to grow. Traditionally, PR firms have used media coverage to borrow the media outlet’s credibility and give clients that mantle of trust, but media coverage alone isn’t enough anymore. You need to gain trust in many other ways.
I define PR differently from the PRSA. I define it plainly as the art of securing trust at scale. While that’s a very specific objective, it opens up limitless possibilities for PR professionals to help our clients achieve that goal.
If we accept this definition as a more useful one for our profession, then it follows that PR practitioners should consider their chief role to be as experts and advocates for trust—to be the “keepers of trust” for brands. Based on our history and experience, we are well suited to this role. And I would argue that it certainly lifts our profession in status to be both a strategic discipline and management function.
That means that in the same way that marketers create buyer personas, PR practitioners should create “trust profiles” for our clients’ target audiences to help us better understand the “prejudices, symbols, cliches, and formulas” that influence trust. Based on these profiles, we should then master and deploy an evolving set of tools—which I call “trust signals“—to secure audience trust.
I have more thoughts and plans to share on this topic; I’m not planning to just dump this proposed framework here and walk away. But it’s time to start thinking about the future of PR. I truly believe that if we don’t reimagine our profession, we will lose it.
The good news is that PR firms don’t need to be all things to all people—the model so many integrated agencies are putting forward. The modern PR firm must simply become better than any other type of agency at understanding what makes buyers, and other audiences, trust.
Note from the Editor to PR Professionals
AKA Gini Dietrich.
This article wouldn’t publish here if we didn’t 100%, heck 1,00,000,000%, agree with its author.
We’ve longed for PR to move beyond earned media for years—maybe even a decade. And, because this is my blog, I can promote a little self-serving message here: get yourself PESO Model certified. Everything Scott describes is what the PESO Model certification helps you do. Credibility, authority, expertise, and trust. They are at the center of a well-implemented PESO Model program.
And, Scott, when you have more on your trust signals, please come back. This is amazing and you are correct.