Communication technology guru Shel Holtz called me “the world’s youngest curmudgeon” when I was about 25 years old.
But by God, I’m coming by it honestly these days. Today’s AI hype reminds me of Internet hype in 1995, and I’ve seen so many other professional pendulums swing back and forth so many times by now, I don’t even notice anymore.
Now I run across a Digiday interview with a highly courageous anonymous “PR industry veteran of 16 years,” who laments freshly, “The irony … is that PR as a discipline has a reputation problem.”
This is a problem now?
Then he or she elaborates, with this tossed word salad:
PR people have to not think of themselves as PR people. They have to look at themselves as comms strategists, strategic communicators. Public relations, as a term, almost needs to go away for people to view all that it offers and can do. It needs repositioning. There are people that are labeling themselves as [things other than a] PR professional, but they do PR. It’s because it’s one of many components required under the umbrella of communications. The initial step that needs to happen is PR people [need to] think about all the things that they should be doing for clients and start doing them.
Insofar as there is a coherent idea here, it was infinitely better expressed 65 years ago:
One of the first trade journalism assignments I ever had was about half that long ago. It involved interviewing PR giants about the purpose to the profession. Quiveringly, I had to call all the ancient giants of the PR business—Denny Griswold (publisher of the above newsletter), Harold Burson, Jack Felton, Jack O’Dwyer, Chester Burger and even PR’s pioneer Ed Bernays himself, who was about 143 at the time.
They were all amazingly gracious about getting back to me—at the time I didn’t realize that PR people, if nothing else, do habitually get back to reporters—and they all believed that PR played an essential role in society, making institutions more fathomable to their publics, and more answerable, too. “World peace” might have been a stretch for some of them, but yes: They believed good public relations could lead to better civic life. And I guess I do, too. The motto of my company, Pro Rhetoric, is: “Professional leadership communication, to promote greater social understanding.”
I’m not much in touch with the great PR titans of today. Are there great PR titans today? I’m sure Richard Edelman could make an eloquent case for a better world through better public relations, and maybe there are others, too. But just as there were three decades ago, there are lots of amoral shits in the business, too. And mediocrities. And its, that stink to please.
The idea that re-labeling PR, or conducting a “PR for PR” campaign, like some people have done from time to time—will not alter what PR is, which varies profoundly with the leaders PR people work for, cultures PR people work in, and individual hearts and minds of the PR people themselves.
For a PR person to publicly lament the reputation of PR people—anonymously, at that—that’s the one thing PR does not need. Because PR, in the end, isn’t PR at all. It’s people, behaving. My first mentor in this business wrote about Watergate, in 1974. He said Watergate wasn’t a PR problem, it was a human problem. “Boys, you weren’t good,” he wrote. “Bad PR.”