PR has grown beyond comedy caricatures

As PRWeek today celebrates its 21st anniversary, it's worth asking how much PR, or at least the perception of PR, has changed over the years.

For many people, including some senior journalists unfortunately, PROs

are still Bolly-swigging, fad-obsessed Edinas from Absolutely Fabulous -

or they have taken on the darker mantle of spin doctors Charles

Prentiss, and his Machiavellian sidekick Martin McCabe, from the BBC2

show Absolute Power.

PR has long been an easy target for comedy writers. But before we fly

into another fit of righteous indignation, maybe we should at least be

thankful that the joke has become more sophisticated.

The behind-the-scenes nature of the PR industry inevitably feeds

suspicions of a lack of substance, but the fact is the vast majority of

FTSE 500 companies now include reputation management and risk management

as key parts of their business strategies. Reputation, or corporate

brand, is established as an invisible asset on the balance sheet.

As well as business leaders, PR is taken extremely seriously by a new

generation of high achievers.

One can only hazard a guess at how many people were employed in PR back

in 1984, probably only a few thousand; account execs tended to come via

the secretarial route, and most of the management were ex-journalists.

Today up to 20,000 people earn their living in this business; there are

over 20 universities offering degrees in PR, and the vast majority of

new entrants are graduates.

Essentially an activity of persuasion - or 'endorsement' - PR remains

the quintessential people business. As such, many leading practitioners

will inevitably be perceived as pushy, even manipulative. Some will even

become pariahs, or the basis of new comedy characters, but this is

testament to the fact that they will wield huge power and influence.

Most importantly for us, the PR business - and its people - will

continue to be anything but dull.

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