Public Relations' Identity Crisis

Are you suffering a public relations crisis of identity? Do you find yourself struggling for a way to describe what you do that avoids using the term “public relations?” Not because you’re embarrassed by what you do, but because you know that people will apply an outdated stereotype to you the second you use the term?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you’re in the same boat as me.

The new PR

Terry Fallis and I started our public relations firm, Thornley Fallis, in 1995. And we thrived with our traditional PR offerings through 2002. Then the world shifted – and kept shifting.

Today, our hottest offering is video storytelling and production. That’s followed closely by designing and building online experiences. And then comes social media. Yes, we still offer traditional media relations (who doesn’t want to see their company positively mentioned in a national newspaper or trade mag?) However, the traditional PR services are now part of an integrated offering that starts with discovery and builds on this with strategies that are channel agnostic. Different things work in different contexts. And we need to be able to offer a complex solution.

That’s the new PR. However, do I refer to it as PR? Not often. In fact, I try to avoid using the term public relations when talking to business contacts and potential clients. All too often, I notice their unconscious tic when I say PR as they summon up images of the PR as it was in the 90s. So, I use other terms like “integrated communications,” “communications for the connected era,” “delivering remarkable experiences.” Anything to avoid being pigeon-holed with an outdated PR stereotype.

Gini Dietrich has been led to a similar place. In a provocatively titled post, Self-Hating PR Pros and the Change in the Industry, she writes:

“A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with a prospective client. At the end of the conversation, the chief marketing officer said, “I see you don’t refer to yourselves as PR pros… and your proposal doesn’t have any mention of it. Why is that?” I explained that when people say they need a PR firm, they really mean they want someone to get them stories, which is an ego-driven metric, and only one tactic of a larger marketing and communications program. … So the industry has begun to see a move toward other descriptors of what we do (social media, marketing, integrated marketing communications). Meanwhile, many of us have stopped saying we do PR.”

New Clients

Something else has happened as we have diversified our services. We’ve been given opportunities to produce more complex, sophisticated and far reaching programs for clients. But often, those opportunities have not come from our traditional public relations contacts. Instead, they’ve come from marketing executives who have invited us to pitch our ideas in competition with advertising and digital agencies. These marketing executives see public relations as an important, but very specific subset, of the  solution they are seeking to put in place. We want them to see us as providers of a holistic strategy, not simply the providers of a specific channel or tactic. And by avoiding direct reference to our origins as a PR company, while still offering the capability, we can compete on a level playing field with new competitors.

Challenging Corporate Culture

So we live in a gray zone as we transition from what was and what was clearly understood to what will be and has not yet taken its final shape. That presents us with challenges of the intellect and of the imagination. It also presents us with cultural challenges.

People in the new PR may find that the organization they are working for defies their expectations of what that organization should look like and how it should operate. They find themselves working alongside people with different expertise and skills than they might have worked with a decade ago. These people may also come from different types of organizations that had very different cultures, business models and ways of organizing themselves.

This can lead to a cultural war as people attempt to superimpose what they knew and understood onto the new organization. (We’ve gone through this phase ourselves). People want to be challenged. But they want to be challenged within known parameters. We need some certainty to provide a foundation for creativity and growth.

A Crisis of Identity and a Wide-Open Future

So for me, PR is going through a crisis of identity as we transition from the old to the new. A crisis that’s driven by a people’s retention of outdated stereotypes, by a shift in our playing field, and by the cultural challenge of mixing new skills and new people together to provide non-traditional solutions.

It’s an interesting time. It’s a time of rapid change and great uncertainty. It’s a time in which we may look like we’re running away from our public relations roots. But I prefer to think that were running toward something. We just can’t describe it clearly yet. And isn’t that the best part of discovery? More things are possible then we may yet realize.

  • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

    Someone commented on Spin Sucks yesterday and said he agreed with where we’re heading with all of this, but prospective clients still search for PR firms. They don’t search for integrated marketing communications firms or connecting communications and relationships, they search for PR. So I think we still have to refer to ourselves in that way, if only for SEO purposes, while we continue the fight to educate on what it now entails.

    • http://www.propr.ca thornley

      Hi Gini, you are absolutely right that people still find us when they are doing searches for public relations. So, we write about PR and provide lots of good PR content on our blog (hopefully, like this post.) But having said that, the PR content is only one of six categories of content we push out. Hopefully, we’ll rank on searches for PR in our market. But that won’t limit people’s definition of us. Hopefully, those that search for video production, design, content marketing, and social media companies will find us and see us not as a “bolt-on” in those areas, but as a native to them. At least that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re continuously monitoring and tweaking our approach.

      • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

        And that’s the difference between you and most… most don’t continually monitor and tweak. But, like you, I believe that’s the only way we win.

  • Pingback: Public Relations, eh? « Brit Mockler()