Our Future in Public Relations

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Ken Kerrigan, Author, “Our Future in Public Relations: A Cautionary Tale in Three Parts”, Founder, Crystal and Fire PR

For a profession that likes to celebrate milestones for clients, I find it curious that we haven’t marked a date on the calendar to celebrate the birth of public relations. That’s likely because we can’t seem to agree on a specific date for when the profession started. And maybe that’s because there isn’t one.

Academics have argued over the origins of PR years. Did it start with Ivy Lee in the early 1900s, Bernays in the 1920s, sometime earlier in Europe? But if we’re seeking to pinpoint the beginnings of a profession, perhaps it’s best to start with the attributes that most will agree constitute a true profession. These include specialized training, objective counsel provided to a client for a fee, a “body of knowledge” or literature describing the key attributes of the business, and let’s not forget ethics. 

Lee’s Declaration of Principles was, and remains, a foundation for ethical behavior in the profession, but the formation of Lee’s Publicity Bureau, while a legitimate first, really doesn’t constitute a profession (the bureau’s work is also closer to publicity and lobbying than a modern day definition of public relations). Rather, many of the key attributes of a profession emerged for PR in the 1920s. Bernays, the so-called “father of public relations” offered his services to clients as PR counsel, the first books about the profession were written, and the first college-level course was taught (at New York University in 1923) – all by Bernays.

So, if we can’t agree on a specific point in time, maybe as we enter the 2020s we can agree that during the coming decade the profession will celebrate its centennial. If Bernays were still alive he’d likely issue a press release about it. So what better time to look back at the profession’s past, pause and reflect on where we are in the present and map out where we may go in the future.

But where, precisely, is public relations today?  I’d suggest we are at a crossroads.  Many no longer even use the words public relations to define the profession, opting instead for phrases like integrated communications marketing or communications management.  Others say traditional media relations, once the foundation of the profession, no longer matters and organizations should now communicate directly with stakeholders via their own web sites and social media platforms.  Still, others have gone so far as to suggest that public relations is dead! So, where are we exactly and more importantly where are we headed?

It was just last summer that the Business Roundtable declared that the impact publicly traded companies had on society was now more important than their share price. The idea of moving away from the long-held, Milton Friedman-inspired, management tenet of “shareholder primacy” – which stated that maximizing shareholder value was the primary objective of the management of a publicly held company  – was being challenged.  Pundits quickly labeled this new idea “social capitalism.”

The statement was startling to many and front-page news across the country – generating well over 1,000 news stories in the days following its release. Many public relations agencies seized on the moment by issuing position papers on the topic. The case the profession was making was clear: If “social capitalism” was going to work it would be driven, in a significant way, by the public relations discipline.

But was this really a new idea?  Decades ago, management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “Management is about doing things right; leadership is about doing the right thing.”  And even Adam Smith, the father of economic theory, wrote about the idea that moral norms found in the “impartial spectator” guide human, and yes, even economic behavior.  And the academic R. Edward Freeman advanced that idea further with his views on stakeholder theory in the early 1980s, arguing that companies that are not actively engaging with all stakeholders are soon to be businesses in decline.

So maybe the idea wasn’t so new, but the sheer volume of CEOs rallying behind the concept certainly was. The question then really is whether public relations is ready to be a driving force in something that is as potentially game-changing as social capitalism. Can the profession serve as a true management function or will it continue to embrace the moniker of a new form of brand marketing?  Can it be both? 

To be sure, change is happening all around the profession. In certain respects, public relations is becoming a management function today. In fact, not long ago, Ketchum predicted that the profession would finally emerge as such. To be sure, if social capitalism really takes hold then the public relations discipline must fully emerge as the corporate conscience and moral compass of management, helping to guide decision making and the impact those decisions will have on stakeholders. We’re already seeing that this year with corporate responses to the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.  

However, a strange new dynamic has been taking shape. Marketing dollars, once managed by advertising agencies and targeted towards mainstream media outlets, have been increasingly redirected towards so-called public relations activities – mostly on social media platforms like Facebook.  As a result, the media landscape has been turned on its head.  

With too many segments of the public primarily getting their news from social media platforms, let alone highly partisan cable news networks, it should come as no surprise that “fake news” is a label easily affixed to almost any form of traditional media today. And longstanding media outlets continue to shut their doors, a fact that will likely get worse in a post-pandemic world. Is it any wonder then that Time magazine asked in a 2017 cover story: Is truth dead? 

Truth, like virtually everything else, needs a financial backer, and the public relations and advertising functions have been driving more money away from the traditional advertising that once kept news outlets afloat. Will truth be left to die by the roadside? 

As we search for ways to adapt to this changing landscape, are we doing enough to ensure we don’t forget the core characteristics that have established the foundation of the modern day public relations professional, one that can position public relations as a true management function? 

Interestingly, pioneering management theorist Henri Thayol, often called the “father of management”, may have suggested our path forward at the turn of the 19th century. Thayol is well known among business students for his 14 Principles of Management.  While most focus on organizational structure and things like chain of command, one of Thayol’s principles talks about the “subordination of individual interests to the general interest.”  Yes, at the time, Thayol was focused on the general interest of the enterprise, but if we placed him in a time machine and transported him to a boardroom meeting today, he might say the individual interest of the company must be subordinate to the general interest of society. Pity we don’t have a time machine, but I’d settle for communications schools teaching Thayol’s principles of management more than they currently teach the principles of marketing.

In an era diminishing trust, our future in public relations may never have been so important. So, it’s time to celebrate our past 100 years and then figure out what we’re going to do to drive forward real change in the years to come. If only someone could agree on a date to throw the party.


About the Author: Ken Kerrigan is the author of “Our Future in Public Relations: A Cautionary Tale in Three Parts” (Emerald Publishing), which will be published on August 17th. This article is adapted from that text. 

 

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