Yes, there is a recession. Yes, some companies are cutting back on their marketing spending. Yes, public relations agencies are laying people off. But the most important challenge facing the industry has nothing to do with the cycles of the economy. It’s the same challenge the industry a year ago, and come to think of it a decade ago: the perception that public relations is not so much about solving problems as it is about painting a smiley face on them and hoping people thinks they’ve gone away.

In The Mind of the CEO , Jeffrey Garten discusses the issues that keep today’s CEOs awake nights, and concludes that the most pressing issues revolve around the changing relationship between business and society. They are, in other words, public relations issues. Yet nowhere in the book does Garten—or any of the CEOs he interviews—use the words public relations, except to say that the answer to these challenges has to be more than “just PR.”

Glen Peters, who heads the reputation assurance practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers and author of Waltzing with the Rapotrs, articulates this dismissive view of public relations as well as anyone when he discusses the pressure that companies are under to respond to increasing vocal critics: “Companies have begun to ask if there is a way to protect themselves from these attacks…. Traditional solutions such as massive injections of cash toward public relations seem to have the reverse effect. They make people more suspicious and cynical of the intentions of the company.

“Something else is needed—something that provides substance to the fancy value statements promoted by PR. Something that can be measured. Something that provides a structured way of ensuring management that their company is fundamentally a responsible one.”

Peters is the representative of an industry that believes it can do public relations better than public relations people can. Yet his book contains nothing particularly new. Few of the 250-plus pages that follow the excerpt above contain anything that would surprise a competent public relations executive, but Peters is clearly anticipating that his readers will recognize the description of PR he presents—all style, no substance—and write the industry off. And if Garten’s book is any guide, most readers, including those in the executive suite, are going to oblige.

It’s understandable. For one thing, there’s enough bad public relations practice around that it can sometimes overshadow the good. For another, when good public relations happens, it often appears to be the result of serendipity rather than any strategic plan for the improvement and promotion of the industry. Yet a strategic plan is just what we need, a blueprint for transforming the industry, discarding all the negative baggage, and positioning public relations as a vital—perhaps the vital—management function of the 21st century.

I don’t know what this strategic plan should look like, but I can offer up a seven-point outline to get the discussion rolling:

1.                Recruitment

The first priority is to ensure that the public relations industry attracts individuals whose education has prepared them for the challenge of 21st century public relations. At the entry level, the industry needs to reach out to MBAs as well as to J-school and PR graduates, and it also needs to be more active in PR education, so those with a PR degree also come equipped with a broader understanding of how business works. At the middle levels, the industry needs to stop cannibalizing itself and look beyond its current ranks, seeking out individuals who have operating experience in major corporations, as well as financial, legal, and human resources backgrounds.

2.    Professional Development

While the industry’s commitment to training has increased a hundred-fold over the past decade, it needs to go further. In particular, training needs to extend beyond the current emphasis on vocational skills to include business and financial topics as well as industry-specific knowledge. While the majority of major agencies offer in-house training, the majority of corporate PR departments do not. But corporate PR people have many of the same professional development needs. Agencies should open their training programs to corporate clients, and corporate PR chiefs should recognize that devoting time and money to training their people is essential.

3.    Knowledge

The legal profession works from a solid body of knowledge, which means that its practitioners are able to cite precedent when offering their counsel or pleading their case. Public relations professionals, on the other hand, are often forced to base their advice on instinct and judgment. There’s nothing wrong with either instinct or judgment—all professionals develop them over time—but advice is more compelling if it’s supported by hard evidence. That means developing a body of knowledge for the PR industry, and it means conducting research that demonstrates a cause-and-effect relationship between how companies behave and issues such as employee and customer loyalty, regulatory action, and even share price.

4.    Discipline

Management consultants adhere to a rigorous intellectual process, while public relations people make it up as they go—at least, that’s the perception. Various individual PR agencies have created their own distinct methodologies over the past decade, but the industry continues to fly by the seat of its collective pants far too often for its clients’ comfort. In Waltzing with the Raptors, Peters calls for an approach to reputation management that includes “a good deal of quality management, plenty of risk analysis, a pinch of change management, lashings of auditing methods, spoonfuls of stakeholder analysis, a dash of project management and action planning, and a good dose of key performance analysis.” All of those disciplines have something to contribute to good PR.

5.    Integrity

Given the perception that public relations is often synonymous with manipulation and deceit, the industry has to make ethics a priority. In this context, we need to get beyond the trite exhortation to “tell the truth,” and understand that public relations must adhere to the highest standards of transparency. If a so-called “independent expert” is on the industry payroll, the nature of that relationship must be made clear every time he or she speaks; if an industry is the largest supporter of a “consumer group,” its precise role must be made public.

6.    Evaluation

By now, the myth that the impact of public relations activity is inherently more difficult to measure than the impact of advertising should have been thoroughly dispelled. There are instruments out there, developed by individual agencies and by research professionals, to measure the impact of public relations, on sales and on an organization’s long-term reputation. But as an industry, public relations needs to agree on precisely what needs to be measured, and what doesn’t—it needs to jettison its reliance on counting clips and invest far greater resources in tracking audience behaviors.

7.    Marketing

The public relations industry needs to do all these things, but it also needs to tell the outside world that it is doing them. As long as the misperceptions outlined in the first paragraphs of this manifesto persist, the public relations industry is never going to convince the highest quality graduates that it offers a career opportunity as exciting and as rewarding as management consulting and it is never going to persuade time-challenged CEOs that it should play a key role at the policy-making level. This means celebrating the best in public relations, but it also means condemning the worst—making sure that the difference between PR and mere “spin” is well understood.

These seven steps provide a blueprint for a more professional public relations industry. But if the blueprint is to become reality, industry leaders need to step up and take an active role in building on these principles.  

On the agency side of the business, for example, the Council of Public Relations Firms could demand that its members have programs in place to address each of these seven areas, that they meet at least minimum standards on professional development, ethics and evaluation. On the corporate side, organizations such as the Arthur W. Page Society could over time admit only new members whose PR departments sign on to these principles. And both organizations could offer training to non-member agencies and clients aspiring to higher standards.

Business leaders are crying out for help in addressing the kind of problems the public relations profession exists to solve. But the public relations profession won’t win a seat at the right hand of the CEO just because it believes it deserves one—it will have to earn that seat by demonstrating that it has come of a