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PR as Lipstick on the Proverbial Pig

PR as Lipstick on the Proverbial Pig-2

Lipstick.  Until we collectively do something about it, it’ll be there staring back from the mirror.

“I reject the characterization of public relations in this book,” wrote Richard Edelman on his blog 6 A.M. “It is degrading and deeply flawed.”

Edelman was referring to a new book by Philip Kotler titled Marketing 3.0.  Edelman he cites several examples from the book including:

“We have observed that many companies undertake socially responsible actions as public relations gestures. Marketing 3.0 is not about companies doing public relations. It is about companies weaving values into their corporate cultures.

Some employees are ignorant of their corporate values or see them designed only for public relations.

In Marketing 3.0, addressing social challenges should not be viewed only as a tool of public relations…on the contrary companies should act as good corporate citizens and address social problems deeply within their business models.”

I have not read the book yet, but I have read some of Kotler’s earlier books, notably one of his college textbooks and also Kotler on Marketing, which I found helpful, even enlightening. He is after all a tenured professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management which houses a very reputable MBA program.

So how could a studied, widely published scholar like Prof. Kotler mischaracterize public relations?  Why are the terms “public relations” and “PR” used as synonyms for the lipstick on the proverbial pig? I’d suggest it’s because as an industry, we haven’t done well to define the term.

If you ask 10 PR professionals to define PR, you’ll get 10 different responses.  For example, Heidi Cohen identified 31 common definitions of PR, which caused Beth Harte to write in this post, “31 Definitions. Really! 31. Does anyone else see anything wrong with that?”

Yes.  I do.

I also have a hard time swallowing the PRSA definition of PR too: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

What does that mean?

Contrast the definition of PR with the very clear and neat definitions of sales and advertising according to the American Marketing Association:

Sales. Any of a number of activities designed to promote customer purchase of a product or service. Sales can be done in person or over the phone, through e-mail or other communication media. The process generally includes stages such as assessing customer needs, presenting product features and benefits to address those needs and negotiation on price, delivery and other elements.

Advertising.The placement of announcements and persuasive messages in time or space purchased in any of the mass media by business firms, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and individuals who seek to inform and/ or persuade members of a particular target market or audience about their products, services, organizations, or ideas.

While I’m critical of PRSA’s definition, it’s admittedly not an easy problem to solve.  Gaining consensus and buy in across the industry that struggles to define the difference between PR and publicity and yet is so quick to invest time and resources in pointing out each other’s faults is no small undertaking.

My point is that while I agree with Edelman and dislike Kotler’s characterization of PR, it’s going to continue happening until we collectively address the problem.

Correcting it starts with properly defining the term.  More importantly, if we properly define the discipline, it will make our lives easier in a number of ways – notably justifying expenditures on sound, honest and transparent relations with the public.

Until we do, PR will be used as a callous characterization – the lipstick on the proverbial pig.

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Photo credit: Flickr, theilr, Lipstick on a pig (CC BY-SA 2.0

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5 Responses

  1. Keith

    Hi Frank – Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. Your point about the need for a more modern defition of public relations is well taken. An update to the PRSA definition of PR is something we have been discussing internally for quite some time. As you note, an argument can be made that it could use a good dusting to bring it up to speed with today’s broader working definition of public relations.

    The broader challenge, thought, will be to get a collective buy-in for any new defition, not only from the PR industry, but from colleagues in advertising and marketing, and most certainly from the broader business community. In order to do that, we can't simply issue a new defition this week or even next month. It's going to require quite a lot of collective work from various industry trade groups, including PRSA, the Council of PR Firms, Arthur Page Society, as well as organizations in the UK (CIPR, PRCA), Canada (CPRS), IABC and many others.

    If we can find a broad, collective definition that many industry organizations can get behind, I'm confident we will be able to create a lasting defition that will help the industry thrive for many years to come.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations

  2. Jayme Soulati

    Thanks to Danielle Kelly for sharing this post with me. Frank, all of us have been grappling with what you're saying for three weeks now (intensely) since the NYX debacle with the Hamptons dude.

    It put "What Is PR?" at the forefront of global discussion, and it's a topic I'm covering nearly daily on my blog, too.

    Will include you in future as we attempt to update a 30yo definition or at least escalate it so we at frontlines can find consensus for our benefit.

    The only thing we can do collectively is to educate our clients and those loosely using "PR" to describe anything relating to communication.

  3. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    @Keith @Jayme — thanks for comments. Indeed the NYT article has set off quite a firestorm. Ironically, it's not the first such article in that same exact blog column that said this — yet the previous articles did not produce such a ruckus.

    I agree it's difficult and challenging work, but feel strongly there is no more important priority. Until we get it right, we'll be spinning our wheels on this same old tired topic for another 10 years. After all, this was an issue when I started in PR 12 years ago.

  4. Davina K. Brewer

    I also linked back to Heidi and Beth's posts, thinking there are too many definitions. I'm one of those well "good service is good PR is good HR is good support." It all reflects on the brand, how a company deals with its target audiences well beyond publicity and media relations.

    Would that I could summon a clarion definition to rule them all, but to Keith's point I think the scope and breadth of PR (media relations, investor relations, employee, crisis, community, etc.) is part of the issue. The thing with sales or advertising: 1) they're easier to understand and 2) we use them to define PR against, to show what it's not. Yes PR supports those initiatives as part of marketing but it's also about communications to achieve strategic business goals. FWIW.

  5. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    Hi Davina, I'd definitely agree that PR supports those roles, but as a community, I think we can do a much better job of defining the role. It's a worthwhile endeavor. IMHO.

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