Last week the PR industry’s newest event highlighted one of its
oldest problems - awareness of the profession’s worth outside its own
The keynote speaker at the inaugural Communication Directors’ Forum was
that arch-enemy of PR and all things corporate, John Pilger. It was a
vintage performance and it got delegates talking and remained a
favourite topic of conversation until the end of the conference. But
Pilger failed to inspire or start a genuine debate on the role of PR. He
made little effort to understand his audience and PR was dismissed as
part of a general conspiracy to muffle the free press.
This was a backward looking speech, in contrast to the newest trends and
issues covered elsewhere in the conference. What the event cried out for
was a heavyweight speaker proposing a new definition of PR. This
definition could have acted as a paradigm against which to test other
definitions put forward during the rest of the forum.
To their credit the organisers tried to broaden the range of speakers
beyond the usual sweep of PR conference stalwarts to include experts who
could shed light on issues such as branding and change management.
The premise of the conference was that companies are recognising the
importance of PR in communicating change, in marketing the brand to
internal audiences and thus strengthening it, and in safeguarding and
promoting a company’s reputation as a corporate citizen.
But there were perhaps too few speakers from PR backgrounds themselves
to reinforce that message convincingly. Out of some 27 listed in the
catalogue, under half worked in PR or lobbying. As a networking
opportunity and a talking shop the event was self-evidently a success,
with an impressive list of delegates from blue-chip companies
But the unusual venue - on board the Norwegian Dream in the Channel -
highlighted a potential ivory tower problem. The conference would have
been the ideal forum to hear from those involved in the most daunting PR
tasks of the last year - healthcare agency Ruder Finn on the worldwide
launch of Viagra, British Airways on managing the high profile cabin
crew strike last year, Sainsbury’s on its communication strategy now
that it has lost pole position amongst the supermarkets.
To be fair, a conference alone cannot tackle years of misunderstanding
and distrust about the value of PR. But without such high profile case
studies, the industry loses the chance to prove through hard evidence,
to the likes of John Pilger, that his attitudes to PR are as outdated as
that other ship, the Ark.