PAUL HOLMES: To overcome its identity crisis, the industry has to define and defend 'public relations'

Ever since I started writing about PR, it has been a business with an identity crisis.

Ever since I started writing about PR, it has been a business with an identity crisis.

I was reminded of that fact last week, during a panel discussion in Washington, DC, where I was asked if we should drop the tainted term "public relations" in favor of something carrying a little less baggage. So I was forced once again to defend the term "public relations," which I have always liked because - as a journalist - I have always been interested in what words actually mean, and the words "public" and "relations" express exactly what I believe this business is about: building and leveraging relationships with key publics. Unfortunately, what has happened over the years - it took place at this DC meeting - is that people use the terms "public relations" and "publicity" interchangeably. But they don't mean the same thing. Publicity may be a product of good PR (although there are dozens of other products just as important), but it is not same thing as PR, and it certainly is not the ultimate objective. As for the alternative terms for what we do, they all seem weaker, not stronger. Someone once told me he was changing his firm's name from XYZ Public Relations to XYZ Marketing Communications because "we've broadened our portfolio of services." But marketing (managing the relationship between a company and its customers) is a much narrower discipline than PR (managing the relationship between a company and all stakeholders), though it's not narrower than publicity, which is probably what the firm was doing. Similarly, the term corporate communications seems too narrow in its focus on communications. That's one of the ways in which an organization builds relationships, but it's not the most important way. The most important way is through behavior. So which would you rather be, the person in charge of communicating corporate decisions, or the person who counsels management on how those decisions are likely to impact relationships? There are terms I find less objectionable. I spent five years writing for a publication called Reputation Management. But if those who currently call themselves public relations professionals suddenly decided to become reputation managers, would anything really change? In six months, all those stories that accuse companies of "public relations ploys" would suddenly start writing about "reputation management ploys," and announcements that were "just PR" would become "just RM." If we're worried about how we're perceived, we must understand the importance of words, and what they mean. We must distinguish between publicity and public relations, and take every opportunity to explain what the latter term really means, and what distinguishes good PR from bad.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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