The Max Clifford case shows we've blurred public relations with publicity

If you believe there's no such thing as bad publicity, get out of the game.

For far too long the CIPR, the broader profession and this magazine included, have been guilty of focusing too much time on media relations. The upshot is that popular culture, including the national media, mistakenly interchanges public relations and publicity.

If your focus is on coverage, impressions, getting mentions, managing image and increasing profile and visibility through the press, there is no doubt that sometimes publicity is helpful. But as the fragmentation of the media continues it dramatically declines in importance – especially as it has only ever been just one tactical outcome of what we exist to do.

The sum of public relations is the living, breathing expression of an organisation’s values and beliefs. It is the management of reputation through multiple channels of communication in order to achieve a genuine two-way dialogue with your publics, or audiences.

The crucial bit is ‘two-way’ – or conversation, to use the modern parlance.

Digital and social media provide us with the ability to listen to our audiences, to reach them individually and as groups and with a new depth of data available to help us measure the outcome of this activity, and all in real time.

We can achieve genuine dialogue by encouraging and participating in conversations. We can use communication to negotiate with publics, resolve conflict and promote mutual understanding.

That’s the formal definition of public relations: look it up for yourself. There has arguably never been a more exciting time to work in our business, as each of the functional areas of an organisation recognises the opportunity to engage with their audiences or publics via new, social forms of media.

This is the so-called shift to social or open business and is impacting not just on external communications, but internal communications, customer services and product development.

We’ve never had such an incredible opportunity. My message is simple. If you believe there’s no such thing as bad publicity, get out of the game and get out of the way. Now is the time for the real professionals to step forward. It’s time for us to claim back public relations.

Stephen Waddington is CIPR president; digital and social media director, Ketchum Europe

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