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Beyond media relations: Creating a new path for PR

by | Oct 11, 2022 | Analysis, Public Relations

This is an excerpt written by Scott Baradell, author of upcoming book Trust Signals and CEO and Founder of Idea Grove, an award-winning PR & marketing agency. 

Trust Signals book coverAs a longtime PR guy, I’d like to start by speaking to others in my profession. Because while Trust Signals provides practical advice for all marketers and business owners, I wrote this book specifically to advance the field of public relations.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines PR as: a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

In common practice, however, the definition of PR is much narrower than that.

Simply put, the job of most PR professionals has been to help brands procure media coverage and to influence the tone of that coverage—to place positive stories in the news. PR professionals have understood this definition to be a limiting one for years, but still haven’t managed to come up with anything better.

I’ve heard many well-meaning PR people attempt to refute this reality, twisting themselves into rhetorical pretzels in the process. But the fact remains that to the majority of brand executives—particularly at midsize companies and smaller—PR is media relations.

Nothing more, nothing less.

The rest of what most integrated PR agencies do today is better known to clients by a different term: marketing.

Which, of course, raises the question: “What’s the difference between PR and marketing, anyway?” And does it even matter?

The difference between PR and marketing

I would argue there is a difference, and it does matter—because if a PR practitioner or PR firm doesn’t know what they are uniquely suited to do relative to marketers, or why they exist relative to marketing agencies, there’s no point in having a profession that calls itself “PR” in the first place, is there?

Without a clear definition and purpose, every PR person is a marketing person, and every PR agency is a marketing agency. And the only distinction in the minds of clients is that the marketing agency that calls itself a “PR firm” is probably a little better at media relations—and a little worse at everything else.

Many business executives today would describe PR as subordinate to marketing—a tool in the marketer’s toolkit. In the same way that the majority of execs view PR’s primary role as media relations, most also see PR as just another arrow in the marketing quiver, no different from SEO or display advertising or media buying.

That’s not how public relations professionals have traditionally viewed themselves, however.

Historically, PR practitioners have regarded PR as not merely a tool of marketing, but the equal of marketing as a strategic discipline and management function.

Public relations, its proponents have argued, is the rightful keeper of corporate identity and brand reputation. The PR function, in fact, should lead overall brand communications—not only to customers, but to investors, employees, partners, community activists, and the public at large.

As a writer for PRSA’s PRsay blog put it:

Marketing addresses consumers of a product or service. Public relations is the strategic function that addresses all of an organization’s key constituencies.

That’s a much more ambitious vision than chasing down reporters for media coverage, isn’t it?

A diminished profession

So what happened?

Why does the marketing department control the brand and budget for the vast majority of businesses?

Why does the organization’s PR leader typically report to the CMO or vice president of marketing, when in the past it was more common to report directly to the CEO—and when according to industry surveys, more than 70 percent of PR leaders still say they should report to the CEO?

Why isn’t the PR function entrusted with responsibility for building, growing, and protecting the corporate brand?

The answer is that PR practitioners have diminished their own profession—mostly by sins of omission. They haven’t kept up with the times, redefined their role, or expanded their relevance in the face of change.

Ivy Lee versus Edward Bernays: PR chooses the wrong horse

To understand how PR got here, let’s take a look back at the history of public relations in the United States.

In the first half of the twentieth century, 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, the founder of psychoanalysis—had more ambitious goals for public relations. He wanted to elevate it to the status of a true profession, 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.

Lee’s declaration proclaimed:

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 served with the US Committee on Public Information to build support for American participation in World War I.

As he explained in his 1928 book, Propaganda:

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 and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas” to better connect with the audiences they sought to influence.

The PR industry ultimately took the simpler, less controversial path of Lee, led by organizations such as the PRSA, which was founded in 1947 and remains the industry’s top professional association. By and large, PR practitioners have tethered their fate—and their value as professionals—to the news media ever since.

The emergence and explosive growth of US mass media following World War II led to a parallel boom in PR. The future of PR seemed assured—so long as the mainstream news media continued to dominate the public consciousness, serving as gatekeepers for brand awareness and arbiters for brand trust.

Unfortunately, as traditional media have fragmented and lost influence over time, public relations has struggled along with it.

Trust signals: Building, growing, and protecting brands

Trust Signals is all about the tools and tactics that businesses can use to build, grow, and protect their brands. And while marketers and business owners can deploy the practices outlined in this book, my belief is that this work is uniquely suited to PR practitioners—who have always focused on earning credibility rather than selling products.

PR firms and corporate communications departments don’t need to be all things to all people. They must simply become better than any other type of agency or function at understanding what makes buyers, and other audiences, trust.

If PR leaders truly want to elevate their profession—if they want to guide corporate identity, lead brand strategy, and report to the CEO again—that’s the path for doing it.

This book will show you how.

Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World is available for purchase on October 18th at TrustSignals.com, Amazon and other booksellers. For more information, visit TrustSignals.com.

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Scott Baradell
Scott Baradell is CEO and Founder of Idea Grove, an award-winning PR & marketing agency. His book Trust Signals is available on Oct. 18.

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