Why ‘it’s PR, not ER’ has never rung truer

For many in PR, on the rare occasion something happens that feels truly catastrophic, your line manager will usually sidle up to you and tell you how they did much worse once to a much scarier client/journalist and that “don’t forget it’s PR, not ER”. Yet the seemingly terrible misfortunes that can occur in the world of PR are rarely as big a deal as many face in their professions, where risk is great and reward not necessarily much greater.

It’s an expression that hasn’t weathered our current navigation of the pandemic very well, suddenly calling to mind those of us with friends in frontline jobs. But at the same time, you could argue that elements of ‘emergency’ have started to impact the PR industry, and in various ways. Countless former colleagues of mine have been extending their comms skillsets into issues of or relating to the pandemic, and for them, ER has therefore very much become their PR. Others have of course been helping their respective industry clients to weather the pandemic’s specific storm in their industries. Retail has been upended, transport grounded and leisure has moved indoors. Even without zooming into a specific industry, the nature of covid has fundamentally changed overall societal behaviour and interaction in a manner that has affected every business, for richer or poorer. So too, for specialist and non-specialist comms professionals, ER and PR have unexpectedly grown closer.

Journalists’ priorities have changed too

Then there are the journalists who have had to deal with working from home, further from the stories, often with smaller teams than they began the pandemic with. Some publications have closed. Every story at the moment seems to carry some urgency, or threat. PRs calling journalists need to be mindful that the story their client is up against may be one that is literally a matter of life and death. A new edutech product on the day schools closed around the country? Forget it. A new meditation/lifestyle app on the day the NHS rolls out its own covid-19 app? Not going to run. A new study shows that we’re eating more cheese? Good for you all, but no dice.

So, what now?

PRs, clients and journalists have all sobered up to what is and isn’t important in recent months, and the PR industry as a whole may benefit. The long Soho lunches that were dying out are now gone completely. The focus of a reinvigorated comms sector is on creating and adding value. PR/comms is something that’s starting to exist even more clearly away from the old silo of just media relations fame and glory. There are few positives to take from current events, but they have seemed to separate wheat from chaff. PR fluff has been brushed away and consigned to special occasions, like the uncle who only visits at Christmas possibly owing to, but not definitely connected to, the fact that his jumper always smells faintly of mould.

PR vs. ER: the New Year’s resolution

PRs – living in a world in which journalists have urgent news to write – aren’t just extensions of your marketing team who can smash the phones to bombard journalists (not that the good ones ever let themselves be). They’re necessary consultants and gatekeepers to help you develop stories and narratives that are important, relevant and timely, for a considered and clearly identified audience that would want to hear them. A good PR says no to a client, a great one comes with a better idea. Yes, it’s PR not ER, but it’s never been more important to be aware of why and how it isn’t. And my New Year’s resolution is to let that expression go the way of PR fluff. Into the bin. Merry Christmas – and a safe New Year.

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From the Babel team

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