What’s in a name?

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A debate raged on twitter last month about whether internal communication should be called internal PR. Most of the replies were: No, No, No… Everyone hated the idea, were repulsed at the connection to PR, which most consider to be broadcast communication aimed at selling.

Read more about it here from Jenni Wheller, Committee chair for CIPR Inside.

It got me thinking too about how I label my business, what is PR, what is corporate communication, and what is communication. I wonder whether the industry will ever be able to shake its poor reputation. What a thing for the industry that is responsible for preserving and promoting the reputations of big business! Can it solve its own reputation crisis? Who will do the PR for the PRs?

I believe the issue is around the common misconception of what PR is.

1. PR is spin, or PR is what the likes of Max Clifford ‘did’…

Max Clifford with his celebrity stories and friends in high places, was so often portrayed as an archetypal PR man, someone well-known to the general public, but not embraced by the profession. Of course professional communicators like myself, and most of the wonderful people I work with, don’t want to be labelled spin doctors or the creators of sleazy kiss and tell stories. We have all worked hard developing our careers, many are qualified in communication, marketing, PR or journalism, and have the skills to deliver so much more than ‘spin’. And most of us balk at the thought of  it. You see, we’re proud of our knowledge, good, honest folk, who like good honest communication that gets results, changes behaviour and has meaning. We know that no amount of PR fluff and guff will cover up the dirty secrets for ever – soon enough the truth will out.

2. Corporate communication is guff – over-complicating what the operational teams do.

In a recent conversation with a client and the operational teams, one person commented ‘I don’t see the point of all this corporate guff’, and that’s not the first time I’ve heard that rebuke when you’re trying to help an organisation communicate more effectively. And it’s a valid retort if that’s what your expectation of PR and corporate communication is – why would you want over complicated, jargon-laden content that no-one reads, let alone acts upon? Most often I’ve found those people who are the strongest detractors can become your best supporters if you show them that corporate communication is about improving communication, making business better.

3. PR is media relations

There’s a wider issue too. So many people think PR is ‘talking to journalists and getting a story in the papers’. It’s not though. PR stands for Public Relations, not Media Relations. And although the term public feels a bit old-fashioned in our digital age, (perhaps we should call it People) it is all-encompassing, which is what PR is. Media Relations is just one small part of the PR job. A channel, or a tactic a skilled PR professional will select to help a business achieve its aims. Just like you may choose that building a website, designing an app, holding a community event will help you reach out and communicate, media relations is one of the many tools in the PR kit that helps us to communicate with people. (And I think media relations has it’s own set of problems, but that’s a whole new post.)

PR is none of these things. It’s about communication with a range of people inside and outside of an organisation, and involves listening, responding and talking – not just talking.

For me, as a graduate of the Public Relations degree at Bournemouth University, and holding a few roles along my career path that had PR in their title, I feel a personal conflict with the name. I’m proud of my degree, and of my work, but with so many people confused over what PR is I’ve found myself changing my descriptors to accurately reflect what I actually do, and not what people assume I do. I work in communication. I listen and use research to learn more and understand. I use a full range of channels and tactics to communicate. I know what works and what doesn’t.

That’s why my business is Little Bird Communication and not Little Bird PR.

I don’t know what the answer is, or indeed if PR will ever shed it’s image of spin, sleaze and corporate guff. But I do know that’s not what I do or what many of the other brilliantly skilled professionals I have a pleasure to work with do either.

We stand for good, clear, concise and honest communication. We know that trust and honesty are critical to great communication, we know what channels to use for different clients to help them achieve their business aims. We know to listen more than we talk, and that what your customers, colleagues and any other stakeholders tell you is gold dust. And at last we are in an age when we can ask and listen better than ever before.

Further reading:

I’m really looking forward to getting my copy of Robert Phllips’ book Trust me, PR is dead you can get a copy too by making a pledge on the Unbound site.

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