Show me the money: Why PR needs to fix its image problem

Should we be moving away from the term ‘PR’? Ruder Finn’s EVP makes a case against what he thinks is an archaic term.


The recent The Economist story by Bartleby, ‘The Perils of PR’, shone a bright light onto the reputation of an industry I care about. My own. Even Martin Sorrell described the business as an “analogue discipline founded on press releases and gin-soaked lunches”. 

The problem is that both the article and Sorrell’s comments are completely right yet completely wrong. And it’s all our fault because many of us stopped doing ‘PR’ years ago. Except we forgot to tell anyone.   

As ‘head hunters’ successfully became ‘executive search consultants’, the communications industry ironically never solved our own image problem. We have relentlessly hung on to the redundant term ‘PR’.  

It’s an irrelevant, low-rent expression that belongs in the marketing rear view mirror. In 2021, there is no ‘public’ and it certainly does not need ‘relations’. The phrase is meaningless but many in our industry can’t let it go. By failing to do so, we hold on to all the baggage it represents. 

The problem, however, is not them. It’s us. It’s our industry. We are a casserole of competencies. At the top, we have some really smart, CEO-level advisers. At the bottom, executives who bombard unreceptive third parties (often media) with material they have no interest in. In the middle, there is a mix. 

If I am being honest, I have quite enjoyed the chaos, but enough is enough. When The Economist disses my entire industry, it’s time to pay attention. 

Neither The Economist nor Sir Martin have clearly visited the firm where I work – Ruder Finn. In our consultancy, I simply do not recognise the style of ‘PR person’ that The Economist’s Bartleby encountered.

My world today spans research, strategy, innovation, creation, measurement and yes, sometimes, media. But on a typical day, ‘media relations’ is maybe just 10 to 15 per cent of what we do. More usually, we are developing business and marketing strategies and then executing or making films, building websites, creating apps, developing content and negotiating partnerships amongst many other activities.

So what is our industry’s primary purpose? Simple. Creating value greater than the fees we are paid, in whatever form ‘value’ is defined by our clients. How? Through the delivery of business-building marketing and communications counsel and concepts. And we’ve seen outstanding revenue-based results because of that.

I am certainly not saying communications was solely responsible for these results. I am saying that our industry’s smart thinking and bold ideas resonated with those important to our clients and was a driver of them taking action: signing mandates, ordering product, purchasing tickets. 

There are many similar examples. No fluff. No vanity metrics. Real business results. This is my world in 2021 and the world of my colleagues. 

I rarely write industry opinions, but I am passionate about our industry being held to account for actual, measurable business results. Bottom line: I think many in the communications industry are often delusional about the value of the work they do. And I blame clients as much as ourselves. This is not an opinion; it is a data-backed fact. 

In a recent senior executive 120-person study my firm undertook with the Asia-Pacific Association of Communications Directors, 30 per cent of clients are unconvinced that communications firms are effective in measuring their value. Fifty-three per cent see us as being somewhat effective in terms of proving value and just 17 per cent are confident of external firms’ effectiveness.  

This has to change. 

I have a simple three-point manifesto for our industry. First, once and for all ditch the term public relations or ‘PR’. As a good lawyer friend of mine would say, it’s an energy vampire. Get rid of it. Second, show the business value of what we do. What difference does our work make? What did we make measurably better for our clients? Third, create a formal educational qualification that practitioners must hold. Like most professionals, create a respected licence to operate.

Our future mission: show value. Hello results. Goodbye PR. It’s about time.

Charles Lankester is EVP, Ruder Finn Asia

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