Public Relations: What color is the sky in your world?

This fall will mark 30 years since my first work in public relations, as an intern for the Bemidji Community Arts Council. At the time, I was attempting to create a concentration in “PR” at a school that had only broadcast and print journalism options. In truth, the only thing less impressive than the advice given the “client” proved to be my understanding of how the tactics of the field actually impacted an organization. Unfortunately for the BCAC, the director didn’t know enough to demand anything more than what he got – a few pretty tactics that led to minimal strategic value. (Our recommendation on response to complaints about certain male anatomy in a photo exhibition did make a difference, however.)

Today, my understanding of the field can be considered a bit more robust. In fact, the time has come to move beyond exposition of best practices and commentary on strategies. There are clouds on the horizon for practitioners of this craft, and the sky is red. It will be up to us to manage our industry to determine if that sky looms in the morning or evening of the near future.

If we allow perceptions of public relations to continue along the current path, practitioners must heed the warnings of a red morning sky. Most average consumers believe public relations means dealing with people face-to-face (at best) or that the work of PR requires deceit, or at least half-truths. Meanwhile, PR people often grumble about being distanced from the management decision-making table. In the minds of senior managers, beyond managing publicity, PR often represents something of marginal value, only allowed genuine attention in crisis situations. Practitioners addressing management with legitimate communication issues and solutions consistently do so from a position of low credibility and without sufficient business understanding or language skills to address that audience in terms that generate engagement.

By contrast, social media represents an opportunity – a powerful and deeply misunderstood font of hot messages rising into an auburn sky from a sea of information. Senior managers salivate at the perceived potential for promotion in these new channels, but most have heard of sufficient crises raised in cyberspace to believe that each firm must establish means to defend itself. In actuality, thoughtful and strategic engagement in online communities represents the new frontier of communication practitioners who once focused primarily on managing reputations through relationships with traditional media.

At the same time, many organizational leaders seem to be embracing the idea of “reputation management.” MBAs from accounting, finance and management, not to mention marketing, all understand the bottom line value to an organization of the goodwill and equity embedded in reputation. Some traditional consultants and agencies appear to be shifting to promotion of reputation management instead of PR. It works because it directly speaks to the understanding of the management audience, and avoids the baggage and stigma that has developed around the established name.

Plus, reputation can be a measurable objective… “relations” is a nebulous tactic.

One definition used in classes of the practice of my craft is: “The proactive management of stakeholder perceptions of an organization, product/service or individual.” Hmm… seems like that works for Reputation Management.

Seriously, it would be in the best interest of the field to consider a universal re-branding. After all, who better to understand the damage that can be caused when most of the stakeholders misunderstand or have negative opinions of the deliverable?

This seems like a good evening to visit the courthouse and make a legal name change.