This essay first ran in the 2012 EMEA Report Card.

Having allowed itself to be defined in terms of media relations and publicity, the public relations industry is coming to realize that the social media age requires a broader skill set. Paul Holmes argues that the industry needs to go back to its roots, to embrace the multiple tools and multiple channels that can help client organizations manage relationships with their stakeholders.

What is a public relations consultancy?

Clients not intimately involved with the public relations industry may be surprised to learn that there is no consensus answer to that question, even among those who own and manage firms that call themselves public relations agencies.

Indeed, while many of the firms participating in this report consider themselves part of the public relations industry—they enter PR awards, are listed in PR league tables and rankings, belong to PR associations—they often call themselves by another name, preferring terms such as Communications (which has also become a popular synonym for public relations on the client side of the business).

Even those firms that continue to self-identify with the industry by making the term Public Relations part of their name will occasionally assure prospective clients that “we are not just a public relations agency” or that “what we do goes beyond traditional public relations.”

Yet the truth is that little or nothing about what they do—even those who are now active in digital and social media, as most are—would strike the pioneers of the public relations profession as surprising or non-traditional or beyond the confines of the discipline they helped to define. Indeed, early practitioners like Edward L. Bernays or Arthur W. Page would more likely to be shocked to find PR people describing themselves as mere communicators; they would have considered communications to be only one aspect of the far broader role true public relations people can and should embrace.

Losing Touch With the Industry’s Roots

Bernays and Page and the others who created the foundation upon which the public relations business was built would have been even more disappointed in the trajectory the industry has taken in recent years, and at the negative perceptions surrounding the term “public relations” that resulted, prompting so many practitioners to seek alternate descriptions.

Bernays defined public relations as a form of social science. Page was insistent that “public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says”—a clear challenge to those who see PR as synonymous with communication.

Yet somehow, the modern public relations business—including the vast majority of PR agencies—has allowed itself to be defined by the use of a single tool. Somehow, public relations has become synonymous with publicity or media relations or earned media. And this has led to the proliferation of an even less flattering term: “spin”—a term that implies that a company’s public relations activities are not only completely divorced from its behavior but often completely contradictory to it.

?Defining public relations so narrowly, in terms of a single tool or channel rather than in terms of the process of (as the name implies) managing relationships, has never been particularly helpful to those who practice public relations in its truest form. But it has reduced barriers to entry, so that the profession became open to—and arguably, dominated by—those whose only real skill was the ability to generate publicity or secure positive media coverage for their clients.

Until relatively recently, that was a Faustian bargain the majority of practitioners seemed ready to accept. There was plenty of money to be made in managing earned media coverage for clients, and by focusing on that aspect of public relations, the industry was able to differentiate itself from related disciplines (most notably advertising) and to grow into what is today close to a $10 billion global business.

But over the past few years, that narrow definition of public relations has begun to look far less attractive to many practitioners, largely as a result of the opportunities presented by the growing importance of digital and social media.

The Social Media Age Changes Everything

Because the rise of digital and social media has encouraged companies to embrace two trends that are integral to public relations in its original Bernaysian sense, but alien to it—or at least beyond its capabilities—in the narrower form much of the industry has adopted.

The first of those trends involved the realization that organizations need to engage their stakeholders (consumers, employees, shareholders, communities and others) in honest and authentic conversation in order to develop real relationships with them.

Until relatively recently, it was still possible for a company to believe that their brand was defined was defined by all the things it said about itself: by its logo, its advertising, its sponsorships, its press releases. Today, that seems like a hopelessly old-fashioned view of how the world works. Brands are now defined by all of things consumers (and other stakeholders) say about the company, its products and services, in conversations that take place online and off—often without the input or even the awareness of the company itself.

Companies cannot control those conversations or, by extension, the perception of their brands. But they can influence them: first by ensuring that their communications are authentic and honest (which in reality means ensuring that their products and services deliver on the promises they make and—just as important—that their corporate policies and behaviors reflect the values they espouse in public); and second by participating in those conversations in a respectful and responsive manner, devoting at least as much energy to listening as they do to talking.

In other words, they need to focus on developing relationships rather than delivering messages. They need to focus on their public relations.

If conversation is important in the digital and social media age, content is almost equally so. Digital and social channels provide organizations with an opportunity to create content in a wide variety of formats, content designed to engage, entertain and educate consumers and draw them into the conversation about companies and their brands.

Public relations firms have always been content creators, of course, but historically the focus has been on developing content that appealed to a single audience: the media. That meant press releases (or, for television, video news releases), but it also meant photographs, fact sheets, surveys, white papers, and in more recent years infographics or website content.

Public relations firms that define the scope of their operations in terms of earned media or publicity might stop there, but many of the best firms have always gone further: many PR firms have long produced annual financial and corporate responsibility reports for their clients; produced internal newsletters and magazines; written executive speeches; created and managed events; handled product placement in television programming; and even created advertising—usually corporate or issues-oriented advertising rather than product.

This ability to create content in a myriad forms has come to the fore in the social media age, which has seen increased demand for all of these forms of content and more: corporate blogs, digital press offices, Facebook pages and social media hubs, podcasts and webcasts, YouTube videos, mobile apps and widgets, even games and in some cases television formats and original programming.

Once again, a firm that defines its purpose in terms of securing earned media coverage or publicity for its clients will find the transition to managing relationships or developing multichannel content difficult; a firm that defines its purpose in terms of public relations in the historic sense will embrace new forums for conversation and new forms of content for what they are: wonderful and effective news tools that enhance and facilitate the process of building deeper, more enduring, and mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their stakeholders.

Redefining Public Relations

It should be clear that while the digital and social media revolution presents the public relations industry with an opportunity, it is not to “move beyond” traditional public relations, but rather to rediscover public relations in its traditional sense, and to abandon the modern, restricted model with its focus on earned media or publicity.

All of which is not to say that earned media is unimportant. Quite the opposite: as consumers are bombarded with multiple messages across multiple channels, the need for credibility—the major benefit of earned over paid messaging—will only increase. Firms interested in managing the relationships between an organization and its stakeholders will need to be adept at earning the confidence and the endorsement of credible third-parties.

Those third-parties will include not only traditional media, but also new media (bloggers are the most obvious example) and other opinion leaders (a group that includes not only traditional authorities such as politicians, educators and scientific experts, but ordinary members of the public, friends and family members, identified by much modern research as the most credible sources of information in an environment in which institutional trust has been horribly eroded).

True public relations firms will also need to recognize that public relationships are impacted by many other forms of communication. Rather than positioning their discipline as a (cheaper, or more cost-effective, or more credible) alternative to advertising, for example, they will need to recognize that advertising is just another (often immensely powerful) tool for building public relationships—as are sponsorships, websites, events, and all other forms of content.

That doesn’t mean PR firms need to be involved in the production of all of these elements, but it does mean that PR firms need to understand when they are the most effective tools for a particular task, and be prepared to recommend them as part of an overall public relations solution.

Most important, however, is that public relations firms—and the clients that employ them—will need to recognize that all of these communications activities, including the various forms of content discussed here, and the conversations taking place online and off between organizations and their publics, are secondary to the way an organization acts.

We have entered a true 'age of transparency', an environment of heightened scrutiny, in which every employee, every consumer, every neighbor has access to channels that can deliver and amplify their experience with the organization to a mass audience. In that environment, any inconsistency between a company’s messaging—whether the medium is earned, paid or owned—and an individual’s experience can be extremely damaging.

And so public relations has to involve actions as well as words, and public relations firms have to be prepared to advise companies on policy and behavior, not just communications. Substituting just two words in Page’s dictum, they need to remember that “the relationships of an organization are determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.”

Some will argue—indeed, some of the firms in this report have argued—that embracing this agenda for their firms means abandoning the term “public relations,” that the term has become so corrupted, so misunderstood, so narrowly defined that clients are reluctant to accept that a public relations firm can do all of the things required to managing an organization’s relationships with its publics in the social media age. And so some will embrace other descriptors, or invent new terms to differentiate themselves from the mass of firms describing themselves as PR agencies and viewing themselves as part of the PR industry.

We believe that’s a mistake.

It’s a mistake first because there is really no better description than public relations for what this new age requires. This is an age in which organizations need to focus on building strong, authentic, mutually beneficial relations between themselves and the public.

It’s a mistake because all the other descriptions—particularly, as we have seen, “communications,”—imply something narrower than public relations in its truest sense.

It’s a mistake because clients need to be able to identify the firms with whom they do business as part of an industry. There’s little value in being the world’s only “perception management” firm (to take one termadopted and swiftly abandoned by a leading public relations agency a decade or so ago) because relatively few clients are going to say to themselves: “We don’t need a brand consultancy or a PR firm, we need a perception management agency.”

And finally, it’s a mistake because it sells the people in our industry short. If we are truly skilled at managing the relationships between organizations and their stakeholders, at changing perceptions, at positioning brands and managing reputations, then the challenge of changing the relationship between the PR industry and its clients should not be beyond us.

Today, many clients respond to a PR firm that brings them a big branding idea, or a reputation management solution that requires significant changes in corporate policy, or a communications campaign involving events, website development, advertising, and more, and says: “I didn’t expect all that; you guys are more than just a PR agency.”

We need to get to a place where clients respond to a PR firm that brings them an earned media strategy and says: “Is that all? I thought you guys were public relations people, not publicists.”

As an industry, we can do that by accepting that we need to adopt a public relations strategy in the true, traditional sense of the term: we need to change our collective behavior and then we need to communicate that change and what it means to our stakeholders.