Why PR is Misunderstood and Misapplied


We know things are in flux at the moment — economically, and, as a result, in our way of life. My personal take is that we're not going back to the way things were. There's an evolution, which crises accelerate. It would happen anyway, just more organically.

The one thing that social media has done for several professions, and, done with that, for businesses next, is bring about an upset in who has a seat at the conversation table. Take the "social media consultant" inflation out of it for a moment — soon the term will come to have the same connotation as "used car salesperson" anyway, with all due respect to both roles.

Customers have more of a seat at the service and product table. I think we can agree that employees who might not have had the opportunity to weigh in because too low on the organization chart now have more of a seat at the decision table. And so on.

Instead of seeing this change as a threat, we should welcome the opportunity to design better professions and organizations. Which is the case with PR and communications. It's not surprising that even smart marketers see PR's role as either of guard dog or placement genius.

PR professionals need to confront what scares them the most, because it is exactly what they should do. Chris Koch is right in his observation, and you should make him wrong.

PR doesn't equal press release

It doesn't equal publicity, it's not just about protecting things like reputation and information. Maybe at some point it used to be that way. A brand, an organization, an executive are what a brand, an organization, an executive do. Period.

There are things you can do when they're not writing about your story, below the table I suppose you could engage an SEO shop… I'm writing more about going direct with PR to build relationships with community stakeholders, for example.

We discussed how PR can expand on an organization's story only a short couple of weeks ago, as another example. And becoming a useful filter — and I would add also translator — is what communicators do best. Those activities can earn an organization influence.

Maybe I had an easier time seeing the possibilities for public relations because I was never indoctrinated into the way things are done in PR. I found myself thrust into it and went with the flow — listening to the needs of both members of the media and those of the ultimate customers, theirs and ours.

The "way things were" thinking covers why PR is misapplied.

Why PR is misunderstood

Marketing is afflicted by a similar way of thinking. If PR does have a perception problem, part of which it contributed to creating, given its origin as propaganda, so does marketing.

With social media as new territory to claim, it's not unusual for the two groups to fight over who owns it in a similar way as they fought for attention at the top of organizations.

Part of the reason why PR is misunderstood is its inability to move away from press clippings as a way to measure impact — yeah, even sophisticated online placements are press clippings. Looking at media and journalists as the only audience is another big issue.

Not learning the business is another miss.

Areas of opportunity

For communicators and PR professionals to move the perception needle, they need to start moving the results needle inside and outside organizations. Some areas of opportunity I see are:

  • developing community relations further — not just doing community moderation online
  • putting the public back into PR measurement — not just reporting on online clippings
  • building an online platform for the organization — not just working on articles
  • listening and learning from negative sentiment to help address issues — not just to cover up the issues they find
  • learning about areas of opportunity for dialogue from people's behaviors — not just starting with the message 

PR professionals and communicators need to step up their game. The profession is facing change or irrelevance, just like every other. Understanding why it is misunderstood is a first step in not misapplying valuable skills. Because that's how we've always done it is no longer a good excuse, if it ever was.


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0 responses to “Why PR is Misunderstood and Misapplied”

  1. Valeria – You hit the nail on the head so many times in this post! As a PR professional, it’s disheartening every time I hear another story about how press clippings are the main way someone is quantifying results or how a journalist/blogger outed a PR pro for sending a mass blasted and completely irrelevant email with client news.
    PR goes so much deeper than media relations and writing press releases. I think education about all the things PR is and isn’t starts at the root – the classroom. I still hear from PR students that their professors are teaching antiquated courses that perhaps were relevant decades ago but have since been completely overhauled thanks to social media. If students aren’t learning about how the PR industry has evolved and what new skills are required, how can we ever expect them to enter the field prepared to succeed?
    Switching over to areas of opportunities for PR, I see another one that ties directly into your fourth bullet about listening and learning from negative sentiment – the customer service role. This year more than ever, part of my role as a PR pro and counselor has been helping to integrate customer service as a tactic to help to drive clients’ social media strategies. It’s been interesting to see how weaving customer service into PR responsibilities can really boost results when it comes to helping turn negative perceptions about a brand into positive perceptions (simply by listening, reaching out to someone with a problem and offering to help).
    Thanks for the great conversation starter. 🙂

  2. I was particularly intrigued by your observations of a division of PR/marketing job functions. I have an ulterior motive to be interested in this, but you’ve given me a lot of food for thought here. It has indeed struck me strange that PR seems to have very narrow job functions – at least from the perspective of the customer and does not appear superimposed and responsible for the digital sphere as well. Press releases about the latest flavor ice cream might not get much mileage but some blog action around it might carry it much further. In my mind, it looks like PR sits back and shoots arrows at targets and hopes for other players to guide it to the target. Thank you again Valeria. (I feel like I should constantly add the caveat that I am not a PR or marketer!)

  3. @Adam – well, then, my job is done 🙂
    @Nikki – communications and digital marketing need to work together with customer support and service for social to really pay off with organizations. There are so many opportunities for building on top of each other that go unexplored otherwise. After years of silos and entrenched processes or lack thereof, this is a challenging proposition and it requires visionaries all around. I agree, CS teams understand better than any other group what customers think about and are used to one to one communications with them.
    @Melody – a reality I experienced in may an organization. It makes no sense to perpetuate the practice. IT, management, communications, marketing, customer service should all be integrated in the process… the issue is in many organizations, they won’t work together because of “who gets the cookie” or kudos/budgets, etc. from the top. In that case, I say it’s about time we start looking for more collaborative management groups.

  4. Besides changing the way we as PR professionals think, we must help the client evolve, too. Many clients are still stuck in the “write me a press release so I can get in the paper” mode. So when I talk with them about community events and opportunities to interact face-to-face with their customers, they say, “no thanks.” Small businesses and professionals are still coming to the understanding / awareness of how the landscape has changed, so it’s no wonder that classes of PR students are stuck in the same time-warp.
    I’ve also advised clients to realize that PR is about customer service and listening, but they still see customer service as a role for a “recorder” of issues, not an empowered thinker.
    Valeria, I agree with you in all that you’ve said, but whole universe has changed and I hope our clients will listen more to our counsel, rather than ask for what they know from 5 years ago.

  5. Cheryl:
    Having been on the corporate side most of my career, I can tell you that the best way to do that, to convince management that they are leaving opportunities on the table is by showing them results. The mistake many make is not to hold themselves accountable in that sense, checking the box, if you will, and on occasion using “the client doesn’t get it” as an excuse.

  6. What I like about this blog post is that it goes to the big picture. It’s not just that PR and Marketing folks are arguing about who “owns” Social Media. It’s about the inability of PR and Marketing to define their new roles in this new world. Until they can own themselves and their tasks, how can either party possibly lay claim to a powerful communication device like Social Media?
    Hopefully, posts like yours will help everyone get squared away!

  7. Margie:
    Exactly, we are way passed the arguing. To take things to the next level, we need to be working together and that means changing the way we think about each single job and profession. Exciting, for many scary.

  8. Hi Valeria,
    Thanks for linking to my post on PR and for offering some great insights here. I agree with everything you say except for one thing. I think it’s okay for PR people to reach out to customers and communities directly in B2C, but in B2B that era really is over. Customers do not want to talk with PR people and they never did. They want to hear from your subject matter experts and practitioners directly. I talk more about how I think PR people can use their time more constructively in my latest post: http://www.christopherakoch.com/2010/11/b2b-public-relations-strategy/. I’d love to hear your comments and those of your readers. Thanks again!

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