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DOES PUBLIC RELATIONS NEED A NAME CHANGE?

Every passionate Public Relations professional who has read the 2017 Global Communications Report will be deeply disturbed that a whopping 87% of PR executives around the world are suggesting a name change for our cherished profession. Their reason: the term “Public Relations” won’t accurately describe the work they will be doing in five years to come.

One would have thought that these men and women, who belong to professional bodies that describe themselves explicitly with this term would have had a second thought. Most of these men and women hold accreditation with abbreviated designations of the term they want to discard. I believe it should be their business to preserve, protect and promote the term, “Public Relations”.

Hidden Reasons

It won’t be surprising to find that a majority of respondents who voted for a name change in the study represent or are affiliated to the top global Public Pelation agencies that do not use the term “Public Relations” to explicitly show what they do. I am talking about Edelman, FleishmanHillard, Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Weber Shandwick, Hill+Knowlton Strategies and a host of others.

It is common knowledge that one of the hidden reasons they choose to jettison ‘Public Relations’ in their names is the negative association of Public Relations with spin. If doctors are not ashamed of their profession for being associated with bloodletting, a practice in their early day, when, for the simple reason of removing disease, extraordinary amounts of blood were removed from patients until they were weak, pale and sometimes unconscious, why then are they ashamed of spin which is linked to our past? Public Relations has evolved and will continue to evolve. It is now a profession in many countries and the protection of public interest is core to its practice.

Big Public Relations firms believe there is a big gap in understanding between the services Public Relations can offer and what the business world thinks it can offer. So it makes business sense to use terms the business world understands. This is why they position themselves as integrated communication or integrated marketing companies. But it is clear these terms do not reflect what PR people do. Rather they pitch us against other communication professionals leading to avoidable turf wars. Moreso, PR functions such as reputation management, issues management and crisis management, which most of them counsel on are not captured by the terms they use to describe their work.

Imagine the level of recognition and acceptance our profession would have enjoyed globally if these top PR agencies made explicit references to the term “Public Relations” in their names. They command a very good chunk of global market share of PR business and work for the biggest multinationals worldwide. Public Relations would have ridden on their coattails to greatness.

Questions They Forgot To Ask

“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge”, so says Thomas Berger. Those who voted for a name change for our profession should have asked themselves these salient questions first:

  • Does the term “Public Relations” mirror what we do?
  • Is there a radical change in values and direction of public relations?
  • Has Public Relations outgrown its original identity?
  • Is the reputation of the profession damaged beyond repair?
  • Are consumers confusing our services with those of others?

If they had asked and answered these questions with a deep sense of duty to their profession and an understanding of what and when to change the name of a brand, perhaps they would have acted differently.

There’s Everything In The Name

There is everything our profession needs now and in the future in its current name. Back in 2014 Christopher Graves, the Group CEO of Ogilvy PR, speaking as the chair of PR Council stated that there is a differentiated core competence expressed by the term “Public Relations”, namely: building relationships with various audiences in order to foster trust, build understanding, guard reputation and earn the right to influence others.” I agree with him totally.

Relationship management is our turf. Social media management, content marketing, SEO and big data are new skills that support that core competence. Information and communication technologies that will come in the future will only serve this core competence.

Our close cousin, Marketing, has been flirting with relationship management in what they call relationship marketing. But all they do in that regard is the collection of customers’ data in order to use the intelligence collected to identify their needs. Customer Relations Management for the purpose of long term engagement is the work of Public Relations. In fact, Public Relations is the only management function that manages relationships with all stakeholders of any organization.

“Relationship” is the central point around which the study and practice of Public Relations revolve. Any other way of looking at our profession is antiquated. It gives us the competitive advantage and differentiation we need in the communication field. Journalism, Marketing and Advertising cannot contend with us. And businesses cannot do without us.

A management theory known as Resource-Based View of the Firm explains that firms that are able to accumulate resources and capabilities that are rare, valuable, non-substitutable and inimitable will achieve advantage over competitors. Relationships are resources with those qualities.

Public Relations does not need a name-change. What is needed is a concerted effort by its professionals to own the relationship management turf, clarify what we do and sell profession to the world.