In an age of revolution in digital communications, how would you define ‘Public Relations’?

We’re pleased to announce that Babel’s Sophie has been shortlisted for the PRCA’s Reginald Watts Prize for Insight. The competition challenged young PR professionals to write a thought-provoking essay in response to a specific question about the PR and communications industry, set by the PRCA. Sophie’s essay is printed in full below, and the winner will be announced at an event on 17th October. Fingers crossed!

“In an age of revolution in digital communications, how would you define ‘Public Relations’?”

“What is PR?” This is a question that plagues conversations I have had with friends and family since embarking on a career in the communications industry. Ask anyone – whether they work in the industry or not – and you’re guaranteed to get a different spin on the concept. Even the many organisations and associations that govern how we practice PR today posit different explanations.

In today’s digital age, how should we be defining public relations? How much has the practice, and therefore the definition, evolved over time? And do we actually need to be so rigid with its definition?

PR – what’s it all about?

There’s been much debate over the definition of PR in recent years, which unsurprisingly has led to confusion amongst industry peers. PR is probably one of the most complicated professions to explain to people who aren’t in the field. The CIPR’s current definition notes that it’s “the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of […] influencing opinion and behaviour.” Across the pond, the PRSA claims PR is the “process that builds beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics.” Noticeably, almost every official definition assigned by professional associations refers to reputation or perception. The PRCA’s definition outlines that PR exists to “build a positive reputation and public image.” Are you confused yet?

A journey through PR history

Putting those definitions to one side, to truly understand the meaning of PR, it’s important to appreciate its evolution. Public relations is considered a relatively modern business function. However, in its simplest form, it dates back to Roman and Egyptian periods. Both Cleopatra and Julius Caesar used pseudo-events to build support for their policies as rulers.

The birth of modern PR came about in the early 20th century, when PR was arguably more about propaganda than press releases. Picture the famous 1914 “Lord Kitchener Wants You” poster to encourage voluntary recruitment among the UK military. But it was in 1919 that Edward Bernays, the “father of PR”, coined the term ‘public relations’, after seeing President Wilson’s success propagating punchy posters and perorations in a bid to change public opinion regarding the US entering World War I. Bernays took his learnings to American cigarette company Lucky Strike, who was looking to boost sales among women. Through a high-profile parade, with debutantes lighting cigarettes in unison, he paved the way to breaking down the social taboo around women smoking in public.

The CIPR’s definition hits the nail on the head when it comes to the essence of PR in Bernays’ time. PR existed to shift public perception and engage with a targeted group of stakeholders. The important thing to note here is that during this time PR was much more understated in influencing the public. Bernays recognised this subtlety, arguing in his seminal work, Propaganda (1928), that PR was “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses […] We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

From Bernays to Babel

How has PR changed since then? Consumers now have access to numerous channels and devices; we are bombarded constantly with content. Brands are becoming their own media and, with the advent of the internet, bloggers and influencers have become content creators in their own right, some without even realising it. PR’s influence on society has become more obvious, with the public becoming much more cynical as a result.

What’s more, the very line between public relations, marketing and advertising has become increasingly blurred. This merging of disciplines is something that stood out when asking colleagues and friends for their definitions of PR. In relation to the in-house team at her law firm, a friend commented that “it’s basically advertising.” A colleague also forecasted that in five years, PRs will “move towards a more marketing type role, rather than what we currently do.” The very definition of PR has become more fluid. Today’s PR professionals have become brand ambassadors, social media experts, content marketers, trend spotters – the ‘jack of all trades.’ We’ve seen many PR firms re-branding to integrated agencies, presenting a full-service offering.

The foundations of modern day PR

Despite there being more vehicles than ever before to ‘deliver’ PR, and marketing and advertising merging ever closer, there are some fundamental building blocks of public relations that remain the same. At its core, it’s still all about persuasion and influence. It’s still about crafting a compelling and persuasive narrative that sparks conversation and debate. With the rise of fake news and waning consumer trust in traditional media outlets, the communications part of PR is more important than ever. Journalists are increasingly busy people so giving them an ill-conceived story won’t work. Storytelling has been part of culture for thousands of years and in today’s ‘attention economy’ it’s an extremely important tool.

Reputation and perception management have also remained a key part of public relations today. This was reflected in a number of comments from peers. When asked, almost all sources mentioned either “image,” “reputation management” or “protecting the public’s perception.” In a world where the immediate nature of social media means a BP oil spill or Volkswagen emissions scandal could be broadcasted across the world in a matter of minutes, should we be surprised that for many, the definition is focused so much on reputation?

So, what does the future of PR look like? Digital communication has undoubtedly presented a brand-new communications ecosystem. New technologies like AI, Virtual Reality and Big Data will only further disrupt the industry. As a result, elements of its definition have changed, but some have also endured. The truth is, there is no simple answer to what ‘public relations’ means anymore. Yes, it’s about influencing stakeholders and maintaining brand perception. However, it’s now much more than that. Being prescriptive in assigning a definition is a benign exercise. The briefs we receive and client demands are constantly shifting, so do we really need to pigeonhole ourselves?

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