PR? What does it mean? I search around and wonder if it’s Public Relations or Press Relations (or rather media relations). But the two, although not unrelated, are not the same and that makes me think if, in that environment, there is more art than science applied; perhaps more faith and belief than evidence. In fairness, those within that trade seek to communicate their purposes and objectives, e.g., at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations website, where, usefully and unsurprisingly, they offer a “jargon buster”.
Mostly, whether it’s one interpretation or another doesn’t bother me. The use of PR is often a key function. In certain spheres, notably government, the advertising sector, consumer markets and in relation to the world of investment, to name only a few, influencing opinion and sentiment and protecting reputation, is of huge importance. So whether it’s the communications media or the public who need to be delivered informational or uplifting messages, clearly media and public relations activities work.
What about the world of professional information publishing, whose customers are lawyers, accountants, tax advisers, knowledge management and procurement specialists, academics, corporate officers and suchlike? Are these the sorts of people who are the targets of the PR specialists and for whom, for example, a report on some product-related research by the publisher or an article placed in the press are effective? Much is written about the issues of working with and selling to knowledge workers and I query if the PR approach to them is as effective as in other markets.
I’m not speaking about major international parent corporations, for which it’s important constantly to maintain and raise awareness, to keep investment communities happy and informed and whose job it is to manage share prices and investor confidence. My concern is about unquoted operating companies, often simply brands, serving, mostly, regional or national client-bases. These rarely, in themselves, have direct relationships with the world of investment and their direct financial results are often invisible and consolidated into those of the parent body. Yet it’s interesting to note that many seem to have press offices and officers, engage external PR agencies to work with and for their internal specialists and identify a need to engage in PR activity by one definition or another. I wonder if this really works in measurable and financial terms and indeed if anybody notices or cares, one way or the other? Of course, even for them, there are surprises, such as a few years ago when Sweet and Maxwell were investigated by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office or when LexisNexis Butterworths was under the spotlight in relation to Reed Elsevier, in its way, being involved in the arms trade through its then involvement in the defence exhibitions sector. In such circumstances, obviously it’s time to call the PR people, News Corporation-style, but this must be the exception to the rule.
It’s interesting to look at the web sites of the sorts of professional publishing businesses I have in mind and to note that almost invariably they have press offices and lists of notices that have been issued. They tend to fall into a few categories. One is to promote product sales, sometimes by announcing product or service launches. Another is to present the results of research they have conducted (sometimes undertaken by the PR people) to explain the alleged value of products that address the issues of the research in question. In my view, there is nothing wrong with this if it works but I suspect that attempts to measure the effectiveness of the activity are frustrating and so much of the cost and effort is wasted and meaningless. When, every year, someone insists on putting out a piece on how many pages are required to deliver the latest proposed tax legislation, I wonder what is the objective. When publishers issue articles that rarely get reported in either the consumer press or in the specialist media, and where they do, no direct or indirect benefit accrues, they look as if they are simply going through the motions. The invention of a news story that probably isn’t really news anyway and yet tries to find a place in the media or beyond, looks somewhat self-indulgent.
Conversely, the use of a PR function to support, for example, a major awards ceremony involving advertisers, sponsors and professional firms is, I would agree, obligatory, as would be the announcement of an innovative strategic alliance. A good example of the latter is the information surrounding the agreement between Bloomsbury Professional and Practical Law Company for content licensing. Nor would I be critical of using PR to push advertising sales, by commissioning editorial content effectively to fill space between advertisements. That all makes sense to me and there is a market for it. At least when I see those efforts that attempt to sell something, boast client testimonials, report an alliance or a deal struck with a significant customer, it’s all part of the marketing mix. There is no doubt that in a world of viral marketing, blogging, Tweeting and networking, innovative steps need to be taken to stand out and be recognised by customers but the notion that one just has to do “stuff” sounds shallow. For my part, I veer towards the “What gets measured, gets managed” school but only some are measurable activities..
I suspect that for professional publishers, having a PR functions is sometimes just one of those have-to-have fashion accessories which then needs to be fed. Hence, those whose careers and livelihoods depend on it have to spend their time convincing their colleagues and themselves that their sometimes generalist journalistic backgrounds are key components in the search for growth and profitability. How they must be relieved when there is an office party, an internal company staff communications meeting or a reception to be organised and to be allocated the related tasks. That must be easier than having to work with, understand the language and work and serve the specific information and related requirements of professional advisers and knowledge management experts.
Maybe I’m wrong and that lawyers, accountants, tax advisers and librarians care about the faux journalistic PR utterances of their preferred professional information providers and if the latter wishes to report whatever they have commissioned by way of research, that’s perfect. After all, only the most cynical would suggest the outcomes of much of such research tends to support the product or service proposition being offered by the provider. It just seems to me to be trivial, in a sea of proper journalism, News Corporation notwithstanding, and a wired world. Perhaps it is indeed the case that customers do go regularly to the publishers’ web sites to check their latest notices and that articles placed in the consumer press really do drive them to subscribe to products and services. I’d like to know.
One of the problems is that, particularly in difficult and serious times, customers want to know that prices that they are being asked to pay for the output of the professional publishers are justified, that optimal product and service quality are paramount and that thereby they are receiving value for money. Another is that traditional channels to market, such as direct mail, tele-marketing and face-to-face selling may no longer be delivering rewards and that newer media, with their benefits, bring new disappointments. Furthermore, there is a risk that where the providers increasingly want to be seen as having capabilities and competencies that are all-embracing and often beyond their core brand strengths, akin to offering ill-defined solutions to unperceived problems, a cliché and metaphor machine may have to be used to give a helping hand.
One wonders if, as belts continue to tighten for professional publishers, with even, e.g., the normally conservative LexisNexis UK staff expressing the mood of the moment with strike plans, the PR function will be seen as a key driver to assist growth, an occasional disaster mitigator or a luxury to retain in better times.
Another thought would be to change the confusing abbreviation from “PR” to “BS”, “Brain Stimulation”, of course!