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Denise Renner's Reginald Watts Prize entry

It’s 2017, anyone who has seen even a nanosecond of news over the past eight months will know that the world is not as it was, even those who live under a rock are aware that things have changed significantly over the last decade, but particularly this year. Brands’ and governments’ actions are being increasingly scrutinised at a time when news can travel across the world in the time it takes to send a tweet. If one thing is for certain, communications is needed more than ever. In 1991 Edward Bernays said “PR today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a Public Relations practitioner.” In the below piece, I will be making my case as to why I believe this is false.

In 1991 Nelson Mandela had only recently been released from prison and was three years away from becoming President of South Africa. The Rwandan and Bosnian genocides had not yet happened, and Tony Blair was yet to coin the term “New Labour”. As with the world, communications as a field has drastically changed in a similar time frame, even it’s much contested definition has significantly shifted. Around the time of Bernays’ statement, the common definition for PR was “The management of communication between an organisation and its publics”[1] whereas now, the CIPR’s definition better reflects current practice; it is “About reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. PR is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”[2] In a profession that has evolved so much it is difficult to make a statement as bold as Bernays’ have relevance today.

Having explored some of the recent definitions of PR, it is important to also mention the variety of different roles that may fall under the communications umbrella. From consumer, technology, travel, luxury and corporate communications and within the latter: reputation management, issues and crisis management and stakeholder relations to name a few, there are many different fields. To state that just anyone can call themselves a PR practitioner is too simplistic a view. Practising communications can be particularly complex and difficult, as satirised by Malcolm Tucker in the TV series ‘The Thick of It’, it is not a role for the light-hearted and you must think on your feet constantly (swearing is optional). This is intensified when it comes to public affairs, despite at times navigating through murky waters, it is a thoroughly thought out and strategic field. Bell Pottinger, the PR firm, who of late seem to be getting nearly as much coverage as their clients, is a perfect example of this. Though they too have dealt in murky waters, with projects such as their work for Uzbekistan and more recently the Gupta family in South Africa - and whether they should have embarked on these projects in the first place is still highly contested - one thing is for certain, the practitioners who worked on these projects are far from dopes, nitwits or idiots.

There are of course times when PR practitioners have not been successful in their roles. This year saw Pepsi (starring Kendall Jenner) deliver one of the most disastrous advertising campaigns in recent times, only for it to be unceremoniously pulled within days due to the backlash. Clearly a severe lack of judgement, this advert was an absolute PR disaster with the Pepsi communications department either not consulted ( which they should be for campaigns, particularly for occasions such as this) or completely misreading the current mood, particularly in the United States.  Another well publicised event of 2017 was the hiring then prompt firing of White House communications director Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci. Whilst clearly an intelligent man, with a successful career in finance under his belt, his brash personality did not translate well to a communications role. During his short career as a PR practitioner, “The Mooch” had a highly damaging interview on BBC Newsnight with Emily Matlis where he made several tenuous links, including comparing Trump’s attempts to repeal Obamacare to Abraham Lincoln’s abolishing of slavery. Woe betides me to call anyone a “nitwit”, but these two examples prove that not just anyone can be a successful PR practitioner.

One of the main issues with PR today is how effective practitioners are. Not only are there cases where people are clearly in the wrong vocation, but as communications has greatly changed, so too must the tactics. In 2001, Hutton stated that PR had lost the battle with marketing and struggled to prove its worth. This is no longer the case, the most successful of firms would have realised that simply securing coverage is no longer sufficient. Communications needs to prove its value through measurement and evaluation, but also by diversifying even more, looking in to paid media and influencer engagement, requiring even more skill.

In conclusion, Bernays is wrong, in 2017 with the numerous forms of communication and the growth of the “integrated agency”, the PR he speaks of no longer exists. Nowadays not just anyone can call themselves a communications practitioner, as to call yourself a practitioner implies a certain level of skill, craft and ability. Now, I might be somewhat biased in my disagreement with his statement, after all, as a PR practitioner myself what kind of message would I be sending if I agreed? And, if PR really is that horrible, why on earth would anyone do it?


[1] Gruning and Hunt (1984:6)

[2] CIPR 2009