Why The Future of PR Must Be Built Not On Tactics, But On Trust
While I’ve enjoyed my time as a corporate communications executive and an agency owner, I admit to...
(Following is the first of 18 excerpts we are republishing from Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World over the next several months. The excerpts begin today with the book's introduction, followed by each of the book's chapters in order. Enjoy!)
As a longtime PR guy, I’d like to start by speaking to others in my profession. Because while Trust Signals provides practical advice for all marketers and business owners, I wrote this book specifically to advance the field of public relations.
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines PR as:
a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. (“About Public Relations”)
In common practice, however, the definition of PR is much narrower than that.
Simply put, the job of most PR professionals has been to help brands procure media coverage and to influence the tone of that coverage—to place positive stories in the news. PR professionals have understood this definition to be a limiting one for years, but still haven’t managed to come up with anything better.
I’ve heard many well-meaning PR people attempt to refute this reality, twisting themselves into rhetorical pretzels in the process. But the fact remains that to the majority of brand executives—particularly at midsize companies and smaller—PR is media relations.
Nothing more, nothing less.
The rest of what most integrated PR agencies do today is better known to clients by a different term: marketing.
Which, of course, raises the question: “What’s the difference between PR and marketing, anyway?” And does it even matter?
I would argue there is a difference, and it does matter—because if a PR practitioner or PR firm doesn’t know what they are uniquely suited to do relative to marketers, or why they exist relative to marketing agencies, there’s no point in having a profession that calls itself “PR” in the first place, is there?
Without a clear definition and purpose, every PR person is a marketing person, and every PR agency is a marketing agency. And the only distinction in the minds of clients is that the marketing agency that calls itself a “PR firm” is probably a little better at media relations—and a little worse at everything else.
Many business executives today would describe PR as subordinate to marketing—a tool in the marketer’s toolkit. In the same way that the majority of execs view PR’s primary role as media relations, most also see PR as just another arrow in the marketing quiver, no different from SEO or display advertising or media buying.
That’s not how public relations professionals have traditionally viewed themselves, however.
Historically, PR practitioners have regarded PR as not merely a tool of marketing, but the equal of marketing as a strategic discipline and management function.
Public relations, its proponents have argued, is the rightful keeper of corporate identity and brand reputation. The PR function, in fact, should lead overall brand communications—not only to customers, but to investors, employees, partners, community activists, and the public at large.
As a writer for PRSA’s (2015) PRsay blog put it:
Marketing addresses consumers of a product or service. Public relations is the strategic function that addresses all of an organization’s key constituencies.
That’s a much more ambitious vision than chasing down reporters for media coverage, isn’t it?
So what happened?
Why does the marketing department control the brand and budget for the vast majority of businesses?
Why does the organization’s PR leader typically report to the CMO or vice president of marketing, when in the past it was more common to report directly to the CEO—and when according to industry surveys, more than 70 percent of PR leaders still say they should report to the CEO?
Why isn’t the PR function entrusted with responsibility for building, growing, and protecting the corporate brand?
The answer is that PR practitioners have diminished their own profession—mostly by sins of omission. They haven’t kept up with the times, redefined their role, or expanded their relevance in the face of change.
To understand how PR got here, let’s take a look back at the history of public relations in the United States.
In the first half of the twentieth century, PR was faced with two fundamentally different paths to follow. These approaches were championed by two men who have been called the “fathers” of PR: Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee.
Lee was a former journalist who took a straightforward approach to helping his clients by building relationships with the media. Bernays—whose uncle was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis—had more ambitious goals for public relations. He wanted to elevate it to the status of a true profession, like law or medicine, built on the science of understanding what makes people tick.
Lee’s most famous contribution to the profession was his “Declaration of Principles,” in which he promised journalists that his goal was to provide them with accurate information, and not to manipulate facts to his client’s advantage.
Lee’s declaration proclaimed:
We aim to supply news; this is not an advertising agency. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most carefully in verifying directly any statement of fact. (Russell and Bishop 2009)
Bernays, on the other hand, took pride in using audience research and social psychology to influence behavior. He called it “engineering consent” and considered it critical to democracy, having served with the US Committee on Public Information to build support for American participation in World War I.
As he explained in his 1928 book, Propaganda:
Modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people . . . composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas . . . (Bernays)
Bernays aimed for PR practitioners to become experts in under- standing these “prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas” to better connect with the audiences they sought to influence.
The PR industry ultimately took the simpler, less controversial path of Lee, led by organizations such as the PRSA, which was founded in 1947 and remains the industry’s top professional association. By and large, PR practitioners have tethered their fate—and their value as professionals—to the news media ever since.
The emergence and explosive growth of US mass media following World War II led to a parallel boom in PR. The future of PR seemed assured—so long as the mainstream news media continued to dominate the public consciousness, serving as gatekeepers for brand awareness and arbiters for brand trust.
Unfortunately, as traditional media have fragmented and lost influence over time, public relations has struggled along with it.
“Facts are facts,” as old-school journalists like to say.
And the facts are these:
In 2008, there were 115,000 total newsroom employees— reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers—across newspapers, TV, radio, and online publishers. By 2020, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center analysis, that number had dropped to 85,000, a loss of 30,000 jobs (Walker 2021).
That’s a 26 percent decline in a little more than a decade. It’s basic economics: in inflation-adjusted dollars, ad revenues for the news media have been in a constant state of decline for forty years.
That means fewer journalists are around to cover stories—which in turn means PR professionals have to work harder, and spend more time than ever, to get their attention.
And when coverage is achieved, it typically attracts fewer readers or viewers and wields less influence than before—the product of splintered audiences and scattered information sources.
It’s a vicious cycle.
The question that really troubles me, and that should be of concern to everyone in the public relations business, is this:
When you start extending the definition of PR beyond media relations, what is truly unique to PR?
If you look closely at the way many public relations firms describe themselves today, it’s like you’re staring at the hole in a doughnut.
Some global agencies make a big deal of calling themselves “progressive PR firms.” Or they portray themselves as integrated agencies that are “earned first”—referring to earning media exposure through PR rather than buying it through ads.
But these definitions fail to resonate. They don’t meaningfully differentiate between what is PR and what isn’t—and they don’t explain why clients should care about the distinction.
So, where do PR practitioners go from here?
Suffice it to say that PR cannot remain so tightly anchored to the news media. That’s why I would argue that, for inspiration, the profession should look not to the ideas of Lee, but to those of Bernays.
The Bernays path—one focused less on the “how” of tactics and more on the “why” of strategy—is the better one for PR’s future.
I’m not suggesting diving into some of the darker arts of psychological manipulation advocated by Bernays. His legacy is far from untarnished. But I do believe PR professionals should take a step back from media relations to ask themselves this question:
What is the business goal of media coverage?
Achieving this business goal, after all, is what’s most important to brands. It’s certainly what matters to the clients of PR agencies like mine.
What, then, is the business goal of media coverage? Most PR clients would tell you it is visibility. But that’s only what they think they want. I would argue it’s not what they actually want.
If PR clients simply wanted visibility—if they just wanted to raise brand awareness—it would be more cost-effective for them to buy ads to follow their target audiences around wherever they went online, wouldn’t it?
Of course it would.
What PR clients are really seeking is credibility. They are seeking authority. They are seeking third-party validation.
Ultimately, they are seeking one thing above all else:
Brands need to be trusted in the marketplace, or they won’t be able to grow.
Traditionally, PR firms have leveraged third-party validation from the news media to earn trust for their clients. But media coverage alone isn’t enough anymore. In fact, it’s far from enough.
Today’s brands must gain trust in other ways.
Let’s go back to the PRSA definition of public relations I referenced at the outset of this introduction, because it deserves another look.
To be clear, I am a longtime member and advocate of the PRSA.
I have spoken at its events, attended its conferences, judged its competitions, and held its Accredited in Public Relations (APR) credential for more than two decades.
I respect the care PRSA takes to update the definition periodically. Most recently, in 2012, the organization reached out to thousands of members, solicited hundreds of suggestions, and took a vote before announcing the new official definition.
As we learned earlier in this introduction, it reads as follows:
Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.
This description has its merits. It doesn’t anchor the profession to the media or subordinate it to the marketing function.
But it’s missing something important: an objective. A CEO or CMO has never asked me to help build “mutually beneficial relationships.” That’s a means—but to what end?
To answer this question, I’ve created an alternative definition of PR. It’s short and to the point:
PR is the art of securing trust at scale.
While that’s a very specific objective, it opens up limitless possibilities for PR professionals to help brands achieve that goal.
For starters, PR practitioners should consider their first responsibility to serve as trust experts and advocates—to be the keepers of trust for brands. PR practitioners are well-suited to this role, and it certainly lifts PR to the status of strategic discipline and management function.
How should PR practitioners assert themselves in this role? In any number of ways, many of which are outlined in this book.
For example, in the same way that marketers create buyer personas, PR practitioners can create trust profiles for their clients’ target audiences to better understand the “prejudices, symbols, cliches, and verbal formulas” that influence trust.
Based on these profiles, PR pros can then master and deploy an evolving set of practices—which I describe as trust signals—to secure audience trust.
Trust Signals is all about the tools and tactics that businesses can use to build, grow, and protect their brands. And while marketers and business owners can deploy the practices outlined in this book, my belief is that this work is uniquely suited to PR practitioners— who have always focused on earning credibility rather than selling products.
PR firms and corporate communications departments don’t need to be all things to all people. They must simply become better than any other type of agency or function at understanding what makes buyers, and other audiences, trust.
If PR leaders truly want to elevate their profession—if they want to guide corporate identity, lead brand strategy, and report to the CEO again—that’s the path for doing it.
This book will show you how.
Scott is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, one of the most forward-looking public relations agencies in the United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers, with clients ranging from venture-backed startups to Fortune 100 companies.
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