Thought Leadership

Public Relations: It’s Not Just for Communication Anymore

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In the face of its own public relations challenges, consultancies and clients in the public relations profession have moved toward the term “communication” (in the singular or plural) to describe what they do and what their clients need. This a mistake, given that “public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.” So, how do we get public relations back up where it once belonged?

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The public relations profession has two major public relations challenges. The first is the frequent association of public relations with “spin” — the intentional, unethical distortion of reality for competitive advantage. The second is the narrow association of public relations with publicity.

The result: Consultancies and clients alike have moved toward the term “communication” (in the singular or plural) to describe what we do and what our clients need. Is this a mistake?

Paul Holmes thinks so. In a “must-read” essay for public relations consultants, the veteran industry commentator recalls Arthur Page’s axiom that “public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.” Holmes argues that this is a clear challenge to those who see public relations as synonymous with communication.

He’s right. Communication may be a huge part of what we do, but it can’t be the only thing we do if we are to be truly effective in advising our clients on how to strengthen their relationships, their reputations and the value of their organizations and brands.

As Holmes points out, his are not new ideas; the idea of public relations having a broader role was intrinsic to the vision of Page and other early pioneers of the profession.

So, how do we get public relations back up where it belongs? Here are a few principles for professionals and clients:

  • Customer knowledge: the first duty. Understanding a client’s publics is the first duty of effective public relations. We hear much about the growing use of behavioral sciences to inform public relations. The re-emergence of this idea is driven by the growing gap between what people tell market researchers and what they actually believe and do. This creates a need for a more sophisticated understanding of both attitudes and behavior.
  • Character and values drive what we say — and what we do. The Arthur W. Page Society, the Global Alliance (PRSA was a founding member) and other public relations thought leaders argue persuasively that the definition of corporate character — and the values that flow from it — is becoming a core role for public relations. In an age where organizations have so little control over their reputations, both the actions and communications of executives and employees must be guided by a clear sense of the organization’s character and values.
  • Content creation is the domain of public relations. Haymarket Media’s Julia Hood put it nicely at a recent conference: “Content is a land grab that communicators are winning.” She sees an imperative for thought leadership devoid of “marketing swill,” because authentic audience engagement has become a primary source of lead generation.
  • Customer service is the new marketing. Google this phrase. It’s ubiquitous, with good reason. Customers who have both global publishing power and influence over their peers are rewriting the rules of marketing. As corporate spending shifts from mass marketing to direct marketing to social influence marketing, the public relations professional’s core skills of understanding, engaging and influencing an audience become more critical than ever. Steve Cody of independent New York firm Peppercom sees a role for public relations firms in “closing the gap between what a company says through marketing and what customers are saying about their experience.” Solving a problem in public — in front of the entire community — does wonders for an organization’s reputation.

There’s been much talk in public relations circles this year about a new definition for the profession. While this is a good thing, perhaps there is virtue in definitions that retain some breadth, flexibility and even a little bit of ambiguity. After all, we live in an age of blurred borders between disciplines, and between the creators and consumers of content.

Early public relations thinkers often wrote about the need to transform executives’ views of public relations from a one-way process, driven by the goals of the organization, to a two-way process of relationship-building, driven by both organizational goals and the public’s interest.

Today’s environment presents the public relations profession with an unparalleled opportunity to go beyond communication — both practicing what we preach and perfecting what we practice.

Daniel Tisch, APR, Fellow CPRS, is chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management and president of Argyle Communications in Toronto. A version of this post first appeared on the Argyle Communications blog.

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Dan Tisch


  • Daniel, I could not agree with you more, the term communication is already limiting in relation to the profession and its evolving roles, for all the reasons you outlined. I have to agree with David, it appears we are always a step behind in terms of defining our practice.

  • Thank you, Anneliz and David, for your comments! While I find that as a profession we get caught up in semantics a bit too often, I think it’s important to provide a counter to those who advocate dropping the term ‘public relations.’ The reality, though, is that clients are more interested in the organizational and societal value of what we do than what we call it! Cheers to you both.

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