Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What is Public Relations? What is Its Future?


If you're a journalist, maybe your answer to the question, "What is public relations?" is possibly "media relations." But, that takes the public out of it altogether. Far too often, people don't really know what public relations is. Even more often, public relations has what most might consider a PR problem. In other words, perhaps the spin-doctor image isn't so great. But what is PR really, who practices it, what is the paradigmatic struggle it finds itself in today, and how many practitioners know the theory behind it (and how many theorists practice it with the success of the practitioners)?

Find any PR agency's Web site, and you're likely to see an extensive list of the services the organization offers. In fact, the lines are really blurred in the field of PR as we move onward into the 21st century because of a popular move to IMC (integrated marketing communications). Under this management style, agencies perform marketing, PR, advertising, graphic design, media relations and other services under one roof. The press agentry model of PR has been out the window for a while, but more and more each day practitioners find themselves wondering what exactly their jobs are as they must adapt in an evolving career field, muddled further by the onslaught of Web 2.0 and the social media storm.

The excellence model (courtesy of Grunig) of PR provided the first real theoretical model for practicing public relations, and it stirred up plenty of debate over the last couple of decades. However, even though many strive to utilize what may be an unattainable model, that being two-way, symmetrical PR that involves publics and gives them a voice, there are still flacks who unethically practice PR and get by, therefore tarnishing the reputation of the field as a whole. But just how transparent can we be as practitioners? Can we do our jobs successfully and still hold ourselves to the ethical standards by which the academics in the field would have us?

And here I think the struggle for PR in the 21st century really begins. Where do we belong, and are practitioners and theorists in PR really in the same field? To me, journalism and PR are both in an evolution, but they are evolving in opposite directions. Journalism is devolving in a way, becoming more infotainment in quick sound bytes than an investigative, watch-dog Fourth Estate. Much of this problem stems from the slow death of newspapers. However, the death of newspapers will, I think, likely lead to a surge of people with professional journalism skills on the Web writing niche, blog-like investigative posts to draw subscribers and advertisers — the small, hyperlocal print publications will likely live on with hypersmall staffs, but the world is becoming one that will read the headlines on mobile devices and only focus in-depth on what is important to each person as an individual. Journalism will emerge stronger in some ways, but the public itself may be less-informed.

Public relations, on the other hand, is evolving into a larger beast it seems. Practitioners who once wrote news releases and hosted pseudoevents now find themselves doing annual reports and market research, along with running social media applications and blogging. Of course, don't forget crisis communications and issues management, tasks that become more important for organizations every day with so much corporate corruption and so many financial meltdowns throughout the country. But has PR become too big? In a way, this is great for practitioners and students of PR because it provides so much excitement and variety. However, it leads scholars of PR to ask where exactly PR belongs.

In journalism schools, you'll likely learn about PR writing, putting together media kits and designing campaigns. In communication departments, you might encounter some theory and talk more about excellence, rhetoric, best practices, systems, chaos, sense-making, legitimacy, elaboration-likelihood, agenda-setting, framing, priming and a whole array of terms. But what if PR were housed under the roof of a marketing department or a school of business? As PR becomes more of an executive function in many organizations, why wouldn't it make sense to see the field in one of those places instead of the traditional j-school or communication department?

How many agencies or corporate communicators integrate PR theory into their everyday practices? How many are even trained in theory? And what practitioner who becomes theoretically trained actually has a chance to implement theory into practice without some strange looks from the administration or management? Can theory even be useful in practice? Is the PR studied in academe the same as the PR practiced in the field?

These are all pressing questions, and they just make the strategy and variety in PR even more exciting for the practitioner who is aware of all of the additional literature outside of trade magazines and PR news sources. If a problem and the usual PR practices are in a box together, but the usual practice is not working, perhaps theory is the solution outside of that box. But is it feasible to implement theories that call for a completely symmetrical model through which to allow input from publics? Can practitioners really implement a humanitarian, co-creational approach over the traditional, instrumental, functionalist approach and still come out successful and with profits intact?

To me, it seems PR theory is an area of literature more practitioners should pay attention to because it provides the most ideal, ethical forms of PR. However, I think that theoretical side of things can never fully be reached, as practice is less about ideal, ethical situations and more about survival. This is not to say our practices in PR are unethical, but from a theoretician's perspective, almost any hierarchical, image-projecting organization is at least somewhat unethical. Should we as practitioners mislead publics? No, of course not — this would only complicate and darken our field's current state. But what about framing — what some might call lies of omission — when the ends justify the means? We practice in a strategic, tactical field, but we study in an academic realm that is more compassionate and that seeks the most humane, ethical and democratic methods.

As we look forward to the future of PR, we cannot really be sure what to expect. PR is trying to find its place in the field and in the academic realm. In addition, practitioners are trying to voice their concerns to upper managers who in many cases do not (A) understand what we do and/or (B) cares more about the short-term image and profit margins of the organization than the long-term relationships that create an enduring reputation. We are finding ways to give voices to marginalized, forgotten publics and increase their efficacy, which is one area of PR we should be extremely proud of. Clients, audiences and publics are not the same things, and we must never forget this. Without the help of PR, organizations that let sales numbers and CEOs dictate policies solely will fall short of their goals. In this model, organizations become content and ignore damaging measures that build negative reputational histories, extend legitimacy gaps and produce issues — these factors eventually lead to crisis, financial and otherwise.

So the next time someone asks you what it is exactly that you do and what the heck PR is, you can tell them. You can tell them PR is perhaps the most evolutionary, exciting field to be a part of in this modern age. You research, you write, you speak, you coach, you plan events and you plan for crises, you design, you implement, you fix, you pitch, you sell, you advise and the list goes on — but most of all, you establish and maintain relationships. You know there are multiple methods to doing this. You know your practice struggles to find out where it fits. And you know that scholars are working in universities around the world to develop applicable PR theories and to tweak the ones already in existence to best explain the interactions you witness each day. And because all of this is happening you realize that everyone wants a piece of your industry. PR is debated, it is studied, it is practiced, and it is popular — and that, my friends and colleagues, is a good problem to have.

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