We have a PRoblem


This is an article by Alison Theaker.
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With the publication of the 4th edition of The Public Relations Handbook last year, I realised that I have now been writing about the future of the industry for a decade.  So it felt like a good time to review my crystal-ball-gazing to see whether any of the issues that were raised in 2001 had been resolved by 2011.

1st edition 2001: Key issues facing PR

  • —  Change the name of the industry
  • —  Reputation
  • —  Quality of entrants and training
  • —  Measuring results
  • —  Globalisation
  • —  New technology – internet
  • —  Regulation

In 2001 there was a real debate about whether we should change the name of the industry.

This was fuelled by opinions that this might solve the bad reputation of PR, and by a feeling that the name did not reflect what we do.  Favoured alternatives were communications; strategic communications; reputation management; organisational communications; corporate or marketing communications; professional communications.

On the other hand, several practitioners thought that it was an accurate name, that we do forge relationships with the public.  There was also a concern that this would look like passing off and what we would advise clients against – who would have been convinced if we renamed British beef during the BSE crisis?  Linked to this there was a concern about PR’s reputation – that its image in the media was linked with notorious practitioners  like Max Clifford, Alastair Campbell and Sophie Wessex.

The quality of entrants was a concern, that PR was not attracting the top people.  Evaluating results and proving return on investment was felt to be necessary to give PR more value in the boardroom. Globalisation was on the agenda both because of a feeling that there was an uneven development of PR and professional practice across the world, and that PR practitioners needed to demonstrate global knowledge to work in the new corporations.

The effect of the internet in making information more readily available was discussed, as well as the need for a quicker speed of response. Despite concerns about cowboy operators, regulation of the industry by law was not supported.

2nd edition 2004: Key issues facing PR

  • —  Reputation of PR
  • —  Quality of entrants and training
  • —  Measuring results
  • —  New technology – internet
  • —  Regulation

By 2004 the thought of changing the name was now old hat.  A PR Week survey revealed that 85% of CEOs felt effective communications affected share price and 80% felt that PR had become more important to their company. In a crisis, 56% would turn to their PR advisors first.  However, the quality of entrants and training and the need to measure results appeared to be just as thorny as in 2001.  The effects of the internet and regulation were still being debated.

3rd edition 2008: Key issues facing PR

  • —  Reputation of PR
  • —  Does PR own reputation?
  • —  Improving professional competence
  • —  Trust
  • —  PR-isation of the media

In 2008 we were still concerned about industry reputation (yawn!), although Danny Moss felt that better educated practitioners were getting PR into the boardroom.  Murray and White suggested that CEOs rather than PR owned reputation, but that PR had a role in reputation management.

Research into what PR practitioners actually did had raised more questions about competence. Consultancies appeared to spend more on account management than actually doing the job.

In terms of trust, CEOs, politicians, union reps and PR practitioners were regarded as the least credible sources of information.   Most people preferred to trust  “a person like me”  and Kevin Murray suggested that this reflected a move from deference to reference.

New technology, globalisation and measuring results had all moved into their own chapters, becoming corporate concerns rather than future issues. Criticism of the industry had come from journalists who felt that PR-sourced information was being used to the detriment of journalistic integrity.

4th edition 2011: Key issues facing PR

  • —  Reputation of PR
  • —  Does PR own reputation?
  • —  Improving professional competence
  • —  Trust
  • —  PR-isation of the media
  • —  New technology – a new model of practice

Anne Gregory contributed to the discussion of reputation by adding that when PR could clearly demonstrate it was a profession characterised by integrity, then the negative perception would change.  Membership of professional organisations was falling though.  Rather than welcoming social media as a way of enabling dialogue with publics, many practitioners saw it as a threat. If everyone can communicate with everyone, who needs PR professionals?

Social media was also seen as a way of redressing the balance for campaign and pressure groups.  Most organisations were still using it in a one-way fashion, rather than exploiting the opportunity to engage, and  IPA research showed that 75% of communication still took place face to face.

Over the past ten years, the industry has been concerned with its own reputation, but there does not seem to have been much progress on this. This has led to a continuing debate about the nature of trust, the competence and credibility of practitioners and whether PR can ever be a profession.

Social media has not led to a new model of PR and indeed I agree with Paul Holmes when he declared that, “For good PR people, digital changes nothing.”

The industry in the UK is still hampered by its lack of diversity. Although 64% of the industry is female, this is not reflected by the gender balance at the top. The last PR Week census did not even bother to ask the question.  Referring to the drive for graduate-only entry, CIPR CEO Jane Wilson reflected that, “This would mean that we will not be a profession which is reflective of the society we represent.”  The same could be applied to the marked under-representation of black and ethnic minority practitioners.

So where next? That question will be mainly answered by the new entrants to the industry. I recently asked a group of students at the London College of Communication whether they felt PR had a good reputation and the answer was a resounding “no”.  However, the same group of students were adamant that they would be able to change PR’s reputation when they emerged into the workplace.  I, for one, will be cheering them on!

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