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PR is dead? Not really, but it's what you do that matters

Blog post   •   Feb 18, 2015 07:55 GMT

Recently, Unilever CEO Paul Polman was voted number one in PRWeek’s 2015 Powerbook, the UK PR industry's bible of those who matter in the world of communications.

As a long time admirer of Mr Polman’s work at Unilever and a person working in the communications industry this choice gave me great confidence that the industry, or at least it’s commentators, are starting to get what is driving modern reputation management.

Definitions of Public Relations vary across the globe, some are a little awkward including the relatively recent crowd sourced definition the US PRSA compiled. However the definition I have always found most useful was created by the UK’s CIPR which defines public relations as:

“Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.”

For me, the industry and both its advocates and detractors have been far too focused in the last 20 years on the second part of that definition. Counselling organisations and their individuals in what to say and trying to get other individuals and organisations (usually journalists/media) to say nice stuff about them.

This so-called strategic communications practice of message development, audience/public(s) segmentation and media relations are still the backbone and business model that most in-house PR departments and the PR agency community that supports them use to justify their budgets and earn their considerable revenues.

Is PR Dead?

It has worked until now but things are changing. The PR industry is suffering from an identity crisis. This has been highlighted by individuals like Robert Phillips, ex CEO & President EMEA of Edelman, the world’s largest PR agency who has just published the book Trust me, PR is Dead.


From a man who has been behind many headlines, the title of his book has obviously been created to stir debate and more importantly, sell books. I have yet to read the book in full, however I am sure Mr Phillips passionately believes in a new way of reputation management, centered on building trust through what an organisation does, not what it says or what other people say about them.

The PR Opportunity

For me PR is not dead but it is evolving rapidly. Those individuals, departments and agencies that make the transition will survive and thrive in the new world.

For those that don’t, death is assured. The successful modern communicator's job is not to create clever messages (what you say), select distinct audiences and pitch the media to ensure they are reached (what others say about you). It is to have an impact on what an organisation does.

Modern communicators and PR professionals need to be the guardians of an organisation’s cultural values. They need to ensure all stakeholder groups (particularly internal ones) are engaged to tell that story to the wider world in multiple formats across multiple channels.

The opportunity exists for PR to strategically influence what an organisation does, then and only then take advantage of the corporate storytelling skills in an age of integrated marketing communications.

It Starts at the Top

Paul Polman is the CEO of one of the world’s largest FMCG companies. It is his vision that is behind Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan which aims to “double the size of the business, whilst reducing environmental footprint and increasing positive social impact.”

I am confident that the PR industry - or at least the majority of it - will evolve, survive and thrive. But it will only be able to do that if it has a place at the top table and its leaders are able to work alongside CEOs' to really explain what drives trust and reputation and how important these are in today’s world.

This piece was originally published on Jonothan Bean's blog.

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