A sign of a good friendship is that it can withstand differences of point of view. Hope my relationships with Stephen Waddington – Wadds – stands this test.
We have a shared interest is in the evolving story of public relations – how the profession and industry needs to adapt to revolutionary new circumstances.
In a recent blog Wadds raised the issue of what he calls ‘definition fatigue’ in the efforts to redefine public relations where he states:
“My view is that the constant calls to redefine public relations help no one. They fuel confusion and show public relations to be an insecure and anxious profession.’
He highlights studies that report recording over 476 definitions of public relations.
And he makes the direct point, “Practitioners such Andy Green suggest that public relations theory is poor. This too is unhelpful and does nothing to improve to the relationship between theory and practice.”
“A theory is a theory until someone debunks it or comes up with a better one. If you don’t like the theory come up with a better one. But do it properly through a literature review, original research, and critical analysis.”
Wadds is someone I regard as a dear friend, whom I hold in deep respect and regard his stint as CIPR President as one of the Institute’s best-ever leaders.
As I respond, two phrases come to mind:
The first is, ‘If two people agree on everything, one of them is useless.’ The other, by the science fiction writer William Gibson, “The future is already here. It is just unevenly distributed.”
Our future is already here. It’s just a case of spotting the early warning indicators.
And the future for public relations is going to be much worse than a case of fatigue, but a poorer place for everyone working in public relations and our society.
If we care about our profession, the difference we can make to our world, we actually need to be insecure and anxious, because there’s a certain writing on the wall.
Yes, it is a tiring exercise but if we ignore the wake-up calls then our world, and the wider world, will be a worse place.
The current state of public relations
Where are we now with public relations?
At the very least the well-being of Public Relations is flat-lining. I believe this to be a portent to a long-term decline – unless is something is done.
The volume of Google searches on a subject is a brilliant tool for anticipating the next. Searches for ‘public relations are flat-lining.
In recent weeks I’ve witnessed a host of anecdotal evidence confirming this flat-lining within the industry, such as comments overheard among PR consultants that budgets are flat-lining at best.
And if I needed mega-indications of the significance of this issue came the announcement this week by the UK Public Relations Consultants’ Association that it is reviewing its very name – where it may not even be called ‘public relations’ any more.
Their announcement contained a fascinating study among UK PR consultancies on whether they include the term ‘public relations’ in their name, or even refer to it on the home pages of their web site, and other key indicators.
The study revealed:
- Less than 10% of the UK top 50 consultancies have ‘PR’ in their name.
- Just over 20% have a reference to ‘PR’ on their home page
- Just over 40% use ‘PR’ in their description of ‘About Us’ on their web site
- Just over 50% use ‘PR’ in their Google short descriptor.
The PRCA also noted that, ‘Comparable data does not appear to exist regarding the names adopted by in-house teams. Our sense however from speaking with members operating in that part of the industry is that relatively few term themselves as ‘PR Teams’ .
In my own work, I teach part-time ‘international public relations’ on a Masters degree at Cardiff University. The course is not called ‘international public relations’ but rather ‘Global Communications Management.
This is the reality of ‘public relations’. There is a growing trend of people not even using the term ‘public relations’.
My strong belief is that this is part of a long-term decline and downward trend.
And it’s not just a matter of academic debate.
PR agencies are reporting that they are getting further down the line in not being the first port of call with organizations addressing their communications and engagement needs. Digital marketing, advertising and brand consultancies are increasingly getting first dibs, with decreasing crumbs for PR.
That’s smaller budgets, less power and declining prestige and influence.
My experience last year of being disqualified in the CIPR President election because I was guilty of ‘advertising’ shows how pernicious this issue of uncertainty and a lack of definition of ‘public relations’ – and consequently ‘advertising’ – can be. (I still totally refute the charge of ‘advertising’ where my activity consisting of offering a £50 book token prize for a design competition among a creative community. As a consequence, the Institute currently has a formal definition of ‘advertising’ as any form of ‘paid publicity’.)
So, the lack of a clear-cut definition impacts on us in many ways.
And the main reason I believe for the decline in public relations is a lack of clear definition of ‘PR’ with a supporting theoretical framework. In an era of revolutionary change and upheaval in communications and communications channels PR’s response has been hindered by a lack of definition of what it does, and why it exists.
In my work on memes it is not the ‘best’ that survive and thrive. It is the most coherent and easily copy-able.
A future of a lesser public relations is not inevitable, nor the optimum outcome for our society, but a consequence of millions of responses to the challenge of how do we communicate and engage following the paths of least resistance and easiness – all away from ‘public relations’
I can understand Wadds’ fatigue. We worked together on launching #PR redefined project 3 years ago. (And it still contains much valuable insight and this Google community is one of its legacies.)
Yet I’m reminded of something Danny Boyle, the film director once told me: “If success was a door with a neon light above it saying ‘Success’, you can bet there will be a big queue. And the rich will be at the front of it.”
Redefining PR hasn’t been easy.
I believe the task has been hampered by too narrow a focus on its own narrative, and seeking to change from within its sphere rather than from inter-sections with other domains, while also seemingly ignoring the revolution in neuroscience and psychology.
If there have already been 476 definitions I invoke the Thomas Edison quote that he tried 10,000 different ways to invent the light bulb. Yet, each iteration somehow took him a step nearer his destination. It’s been only 476 plus.
To create change we need new concepts and theory which is accompanied by change in the real world.
The irony of Wadds declaration is that I believe we are almost there, nearly at the finishing tape.
Catherine Arrow has produced an excellent case which mirrors much of my thinking.
We have an existing body of insight, including much from Wadds himself, that awaits further synthesis into a coherent conceptual framework and narrative.
We are nearly there.
I would challenge Wadds on how paradigms change. Kuhn’s analysis of paradigm change is not like a new washing powder coming along and people choosing new Brand X over their regular powder.
Change instead, works through outliers, or innovators creating new thinking and ways of doing with Early Adopters creating a new way of doing. The Early and Late Majority only change when upholding their status quo become too painful.
Often, the reality of paradigm change only comes when the upholders of the dominant paradigm start dying out.
And I do take the call from Wadds as a ‘put up or shut up’ challenge, to which I will be shortly responding in the next few weeks.
Yes, I will be supplying a literature review, original research, and critical analysis. And what’s more, will make it meme-friendly with an easy-to-use Checklist to make it easy to put into practice.
The quest for redefining public relations is not about disappearing down a self-indulgent, self-defeating rabbit hole.
Yes, it is a tiring exercise
We are however, near the start of a 5 lane super highway that connects to a better future for public relations and as a vital tool for human society.
Watch this space, but don’t give up just quite yet. It has been a tiring journey but we’re almost there.