Those of us who work in PR are rightly called upon by those who don’t to define what we mean by PR, even though we know it’s been around as a profession for over 100 years. (Ivy Lee, arguably the principal founder of modern PR, published his Declaration of Principles about the purpose and value of PR in 1906, the same year he was also credited with writing the first press release.)
We explain that PR is about managing reputations, promoting value and thought leadership by engaging with different groups of people (or I do, anyway, and I’d hope this credo is comparable to those of my good PR peers out there).
If that’s not good or clear enough, we may offer a representative definition from PRSA, America’s – and the world’s – largest membership body for PR. Or a comparable one from the CIPR, the UK’s largest professional association. Or many others from groups in other countries in which we work.
But try as we might, the person asking may still have more questions, none of which are relevant to PR and yet, to be fair and transparent about our profession, it’s incumbent upon us to explain.
So to save us all time, here’s a top 10 check list to send them of what PR is not: The explanations for each that go with them are below the initial list here (and which will save you the time of explaining each point):
1. PR is not spin (or lies or misrepresentation)
2. PR is not marketing or advertising
3. PR is not ‘blink’ or ‘flash-in-the-pan’ – in other words, it’s not about one night stands, it’s about building relationships that last
4. PR is not about kissing your ego and buttering you up with sycophancy
5. PR is not about ‘targets’
6. PR is not about ‘penetration’ / penetrating markets and audiences
7. PR is not about ‘audiences’
8. PR is not a popularity contest
9. PR is not about attacking and scapegoating
10. PR is not just words.
1. PR is not spin (or lies or misrepresentation).
The frank definition of spin is that it’s lying bullshit. The more sophisticated version is that spin’s the deliberate distortion of truth: it is the propagation of lies or a truth so diluted and vague that it is no longer recognisable as such.
It manipulates what once were facts and embraces the notion of that awful cliché: the Emperor is Wearing New Armani. And anyone who practices spin is a plague bearer of lies and should be considered the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse in our midst. They are known as spin doctors, spin masters, spin meisters, spin shysters, spinners, or plain BS artists. Take your pick.
Brief version: Spin is to PR what stupid is to Albert Einstein.
2. PR is not marketing or advertising.
Marketing and advertising are about the promotion of a service or product or brand for the purpose of selling it to you. We know that and accept it and, when done well (with wit, intelligence, etc.), we can enjoy it and be responsive. Heck, we can even buy the thing.
PR is about sharing information and knowledge and insight in order to raise awareness about an organisation or activity and what it’s about so that you’re informed. PR builds credibility and trust. Whereas marketing’s leverage, while of course having to be trustworthy (after all, a bad product/service won’t sell) is to engage your interest in a product/service in order for you to buy it and be loyal to that brand both emotionally and financially.
However, sometimes content between marketing, advertising and PR can overlap, but this doesn’t mean to say that the sharing of content is the same thing as to how that content is used. Take the example of awards an organisation has won: PR will inform the media and the groups it communicates with – clients, employees, citizens, etc.; whereas marketing and advertising will use them as collateral show-and-tell for the purpose of events, conferences, marketing literature, website promotion, in adverts, etc.).
Brief version: It’s the difference between someone talking to you about the value and benefits of going to Las Vegas, and someone placing a Blackjack Table or Slot Machine right in front of you and cheering you on to go for it there and then or as soon as you like, please.
3. PR is not ‘blink’ or ‘flash-in-the-pan’ – in other words, it’s not about one press release or a single campaign or anything else like one night stands: instead, it’s about building long-term relationships. Otherwise the acronym for our profession would be PONs (Public One Night Stands), not PR, within which the key word is surely Relations.
4. PR is not about kissing your ego and buttering you up with sycophancy.
If it was, you wouldn’t believe us, anyway. If you did, then stay in front of the mirror, where the compliments are bound to last longer.
PR is about delivering credible messages. The only way to do that is to ensure all content is based on integrity, is transparent in its process and origins and is evidence-based. That way what PR says is trustworthy and invites your scrutiny. Only with approval and belief does PR and its organisation merit your trust, interest and engagement. In other words, we’re once again back to the necessary steps to build a relationship.
Brief version: PR is a relationship based on trust and mutual respect, through honest, sincere and credible communication.
5. PR is not about ‘targets’.
If someone tells you it is, then put a bulls eye on them and take aim. PR is about human relationships based on respectful engagement. Hunters target animals as prey, as game. The animal is an object for acquisition and possession, to do with what the hunter wishes.
PR, however, is about a conversation in which both individuals or groups benefit. People are not objects (nor, frankly, are animals), so anyone who objectifies them is surely not to be trusted or valued.
6. PR is not about ‘penetration’ / penetrating markets and audiences.
Is it necessary to say more about this sort of language? While ‘penetration’ is still a common enough expression and an unashamedly accepted term among certain marketers and others in communications, besides – especially – some of those in sales and football – the word once again exemplifies an approach that is old-school objectification of individuals and groups.
We should be making amends for our historical tendencies from which this sort of word and language arises (as with ‘targeting’). In other words, in the 21st century none of us should be mouth puppets or exponents of the colonialist 18th to 20th centuries whose words and actions were aggressive, coercive, threatening and objectionable.
Brief version: PR embraces the language of a respect, with values and behaviour that reflect integrity.
7. PR is not about ‘audiences’.
‘Audiences’ imply those who are waiting to hear and be shown something, but the relationship is essentially a passive one. As a member of an audience, you can of course cheer or boo, walk out or throw a rose on the stage (heck, even clothing). But still there’s a shared understanding between the person/group on stage informing or entertaining you, and you in the audience, that you are to remain in the audience and the person/group will stand alone on stage.
You are not invited to get on the stage or participate in the communication being delivered. In that regard, your voice and views only go so far.
PR is about conversation and dialogue, whether one-to-one, or one-with-many. It is multi-way and open-ended with the purpose of reaching a shared understanding. It is not a monologue / one-way channel from the stage to you in the audience, where listening is not required by the messenger.
In PR, you – the individual and/or organisation being addressed – also have a voice and every PR professional knows the value, power and impact of you as a citizen, journalist, member of a community or organisation. Between you and PR, when there’s a conversation in which both make efforts to learn, share and understand, both are bound to benefit. It’s not an exploitative relationship of one over another, or one being passive and unheard, the other being active and in control.
Brief version: PR is a conversation, not a monologue. It’s how individuals and communities of shared interests listen to each other for mutual benefit.
8. PR is not a popularity contest.
Some, even in PR, think it’s about getting the no.1 award or the most awards, or the highest ratings in their industry, or the best, most consistently glowing coverage compared with the competition. That’s a fool’s game, for what goes up, must come down.
The only individuals, groups and organisations whose reputations last a life time and more are those that have integrity, honesty and goodwill. They are transparent in their words and actions and demonstrate with evidence that they are doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do (not because they want to win acclaim or awards or celebrity status).
Given PR is about relationships and sharing for the mutual benefit of all those in the conversation, PR is focused on doing the right thing. Any other goal (point scoring, controlling the agenda, competition, etc.) and it’s bound to end in tears, failure and deep disappointment between those involved.
Brief version: Relationships last because of the qualities and values of the individuals and groups who act upon them and respect them. PR is focused on integrity, evidence and transparency to build relationships that matter for the long-term.
9. PR is not about attacking and scapegoating.
Unethical people and organisations try to get ahead by undermining those they regard as the enemy. Namely, the competition. They, like spinmeisters, will devise plans of unscrupulous attack, commit shenanigans and worse, to misdirect and focus negative attention on the other (often the powerless and innocent). No good ever comes of it, for citizens as much as the media are the fourth estate and sooner or later will discover that the attacks and/or scapegoating are just that, and the one to hold accountable has been rudely and arrogantly standing stark naked in front of you all along, pretending to wear Armani.
Brief version: PR is about conversation, sharing information, knowledge and understanding. It takes responsibility for its actions and words and holds itself accountable, alongside and in harmony with its organisation which does the same.
10. PR is not just words.
First, presumably it’s reasonable to claim that it’s common in many (most?) societies that our word is our bond. We hold each other accountable to them as promissory notes. In law, we even have the term “verbal contract” that can often be legally binding. So it’s important to acknowledge that “just words” is not in itself a superficial activity.
They have to have weight and value, otherwise they are meaningless. After all, when they do carry substance, we listen and are all willing to engage in conversation and understanding.
Depth of value in one’s words, trust in one’s words must be predicated on the merit of the person or organisation saying (or publishing) them. Words, then, are only as good as the value of what we say by the integrity of who we are and what we do: the principles, values and behaviour we habitually act upon and through which they communicate.
Doing and saying are both actions and both should carry value. Without such meaning, none of us will believe either a person’s or an organisation’s words – and rightly so.
Brief version: Words matter, as do actions. Together, done responsibly and well, they embody all of us at our best, including PR. To fail in one or the other is to fail in both, as both count and one is nothing without the other.