A [Reflective] Essay on the State of Public Relations
In early 2007, I wrote an essay on “the future of public relations” as part of my application to Burson-Marsteller’s Internship Program in New York City. In it, I provided my thoughts on the evolution of my then-soon-to-be profession, which I perceived at the time to be severely misunderstood and all-too-often disregarded.
After a brief albeit amazing stint at B-M’s headquarters in NYC, followed by time at Edelman in Miami and a current in-house position that allows me to blend traditional public relations efforts with innovative social media marketing strategies, I wonder just how much insight the 22-year-old me had into what my life and my industry would become in just a few short years.
…During its beginnings, public relations merely equaled publicity. Public relations practitioners were known as “spin doctors,” and their credibility was doubted. Our profession has seen many changes since the time of Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee. I believe the public relations industry is undergoing one of its most dramatic transformations at this very moment.
In the last few years, public relations has established itself as an indispensable business function. It is my belief that public relations has become an art and a science. Companies rely on public relations to build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with their respective target publics. Additionally, public relations serves as the sole function responsible for generating and sustaining a company’s positive image and ensuring transparency should the company face a crisis. Public relations practitioners are writers, strategic planners, advocates, evaluators and creators.
In the past few years, more and more corporations have welcomed a Chief Communications Officer (CCO) to their executive team. The CCO is responsible for managing all communications for that company. This includes managing the risks and opportunities available to the company via its publics, its competitors and the media. The CCO reports to the Chief Executive Officer and directly impacts a company’s operations. The emergence of such a job title convinces me that the respect for our profession is growing. The fact that CEOs and Boards of Directors throughout the world have saved a seat at their table for savvy public relations practitioners marks a step forward in the establishment of our profession.
Although it seems to me that public relations is still often misunderstood, I am confident that more people are beginning to notice what sets “PR” apart from advertising, marketing and sales publicity. I think public relations practitioners should serve as stewards of the profession and help advance its importance and uniqueness. Additionally, public relations practitioners must be prepared to face the changes and challenges of the business world and continue to exercise strategic and transparent communications.
Public relations faced another significant change in the last decade: the astronomical growth of the World Wide Web. Without a doubt, the Internet has impacted the way public relations practitioners carry out their duties. The ease with which information can flow via the Internet has forever changed the communication dynamics between a company and its publics.
Centralized information is now almost a thing of the past. Information can be gathered from a number of hundreds of millions of Web sites worldwide, making it difficult for a company to control its messages and even more difficult for the general public to determine the credibility of each source. As the “noise level” of the WWW increases, so do competing messages. I think it’s now more important than ever for public relations professionals to understand Internet-based communications and begin to draft tactics that will allow their clients to efficiently and clearly communicate with their publics.
Although developing these tactics may at first be a challenge for practitioners used to relying on “paper-based” methods, it’s important to view the media’s evolving technology as an opportunity for growth. The WWW allows companies to reach new publics all around the world. Additionally, Internet-based communication allows for the quick dissemination of important messages. In today’s fast-paced society, this has never been more important.
In my opinion, it’s crucial for public relations practitioners to keep up with the advancements in technology to help ensure appropriate contact with their clients’ target publics. Opportunities are everywhere, but it’s up to each individual practitioner to decide which opportunities are better suited for their client. It is important for public relations professionals to keep their eyes peeled for new media. I believe the future of this profession relies heavily on the advancements we make today. The way we communicate is bound to change dramatically over the course of the next few years.
And so to quote the lyrics of the great Bob Dylan, “Keep your eyes wide. The chance won’t come again…For the times they are a-changin’.” As the institutions we serve continue to change, we must acknowledge current trends and predict future ones. Practitioners’ understanding of the public relations industry and their ability to be prepared for those changes will ensure the profession’s longevity and importance.”
– Valeria Lento, University of Florida senior, 2007
Today, after having learned that U.S. News & World Report has recognized public relations as one of the 50 Best Careers of 2011 - with the industry expected to increase by more than 24% next year - I couldn’t be prouder to be a communicator. Could it be that perhaps people have to come understand the importance of public relations? Dare I believe our daily responsibilities and invaluable contributions to the bottom line are being recognized? Colleagues, we just may be getting closer!
I think what the U.S. News & World Report article indicates is that now, more than ever, it’s important that communications take a front-row seat in organizations and corporations across the world, as everyone from CEOs to CFOs, HR executives to customer service reps, aim to restore employee and public trust.
One of the more recent challenges communicators have had to face is that of corporate credibility, or rather, that of a lack of corporate credibility. With the current state of Wall Street and unemployment at an all-time low, for example – not to mention the quick demise of public trust in less-than-transparent corporations (I’m talking to you, BP!) – people have become skeptical of those in authority, choosing instead to turn to people like themselves for news and advice (hello, social “media!”). Corporate (and not-so-corporate) America is thus in “public perception overhaul mode” and is turning to communication professionals to help lead the way. The road to pave, however, is a bumpy one.
Communicators have to address the concerns of internal and external audiences and deliver news and responses in a timely and transparent manner, whether or not these messages are positive – today, often times this news involve pay cuts, layoffs or restructuring. Communicators have to be resilient in and aware of the current landscape. They are working in a tumultuous time, full of uncertainty and skepticism. They are working to restore trust, motivate change, educate leaders and rebrand entities on the front line. Today, more than ever, communicators need to be ready and willing to adapt to change, address current issues and understand the power and responsibility they possess to the public at large.
Just weeks away from 2011, I challenge my fellow public relations practitioners – and most importantly, myself – to stay true to the principles witch which communications efforts ought to be carried out: strategy, consistency, creativity and transparency. Let’s continue to pave the way for our profession, word by word.
What are your public relations New Year’s resolutions?