Some of you are old enough to remember 2008 and 2009 in the business world. The glory days of social media. You know, back when it was actually social and you could meet people all around the globe with the stroke of your keyboard.
Back when you could travel to promote your newly published book and meet online friends IRL.
Sigh…those were the days.
I was on one such business trip in Dallas and met Scott Baradell and his lovely wife, Maria, for breakfast. I will always remember that morning, both because Scott became a good friend after that and Maria was expecting their first baby together and I’ve literally watched him grow up from the womb.
So when I heard it was Scott’s turn to go on the road to promote a book, I told him we would love to help in any way possible. But let’s be real, if his book was terrible, I’d send a few tweets congratulating him and that would be the end of it.
Turns out, his book is excellent so today I’m going to highlight parts of the book that will encourage you to say, “You’re right! I should read this book!”
What Is PR Today?
From this moment forward, I am quoting Scott’s book, Trust Signals. So all of the first person is him, not me.
Are you ready? Here we go.
As a longtime PR guy, I’d like to start by speaking to others in my profession. Because while Trust Signals provides practical advice for all marketers and business owners, I wrote this book specifically to advance the field of public relations.
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines PR as, “A strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
In common practice, however, the definition of PR is much narrower than that.
Simply put, the job of most PR professionals has been to help brands procure media coverage and to influence the tone of that coverage—to place positive stories in the news. PR professionals have understood this definition to be a limiting one for years, but still haven’t managed to come up with anything better.
I’ve heard many well-meaning PR people attempt to refute this reality, twisting themselves into rhetorical pretzels in the process. But the fact remains that to the majority of brand executives—particularly at midsize companies and smaller—PR is media relations.
Nothing more, nothing less.
The rest of what most integrated PR agencies do today is better known to clients by a different term: marketing.
Which, of course, raises the question: “What’s the difference between PR and marketing, anyway?” And does it even matter?
Are PR and Marketing the Same?
I would argue there is a difference, and it does matter—because if a PR practitioner or PR firm doesn’t know what they are uniquely suited to do relative to marketers, or why they exist relative to marketing agencies, there’s no point in having a profession that calls itself “PR” in the first place, is there?
Without a clear definition and purpose, every PR person is a marketing person, and every PR agency is a marketing agency. And the only distinction in the minds of clients is that the marketing agency that calls itself a “PR firm” is probably a little better at media relations—and a little worse at everything else.
Many business executives today would describe PR as subordinate to marketing—a tool in the marketer’s toolkit. In the same way that the majority of execs view PR’s primary role as media relations, most also see PR as just another arrow in the marketing quiver, no different from SEO or display advertising or media buying.
That’s not how public relations professionals have traditionally viewed themselves, however.
Historically, PR practitioners have regarded PR as not merely a tool of marketing, but the equal of marketing as a strategic discipline and management function.
Public relations, its proponents have argued, is the rightful keeper of corporate identity and brand reputation. The PR function, in fact, should lead overall brand communications—not only to customers, but to investors, employees, partners, community activists, and the public at large.
As a writer for PRSA’s (2015) PRsay blog put it, “Marketing addresses consumers of a product or service. Public relations is the strategic function that addresses all of an organization’s key constituencies.
That’s a much more ambitious vision than chasing down reporters for media coverage, isn’t it?
A Diminished Profession
So what happened?
Why does the marketing department control the brand and budget for the vast majority of businesses? Why does the organization’s PR leader typically report to the CMO or vice president of marketing, when in the past it was more common to report directly to the CEO—and when according to industry surveys, more than 70 percent of PR leaders still say they should report to the CEO?
Why isn’t the PR function entrusted with responsibility for building, growing, and protecting the corporate brand?
The answer is that PR practitioners have diminished their own profession—mostly by sins of omission. They haven’t kept up with the times, redefined their role, or expanded their relevance in the face of change.
Back to the Future
The question that really troubles me, and that should be of concern to everyone in the public relations business, is this:
When you start extending the definition of PR beyond media relations, what is truly unique to PR?
If you look closely at the way many public relations firms describe themselves today, it’s like you’re staring at the hole in a doughnut.
Some global agencies make a big deal of calling themselves “progressive PR firms.” Or they portray themselves as integrated
agencies that are “earned first”—referring to earning media exposure through PR rather than buying it through ads.
But these definitions fail to resonate. They don’t meaningfully differentiate between what is PR and what isn’t—and they don’t explain why clients should care about the distinction.
So, where do PR practitioners go from here?
Suffice it to say that PR cannot remain so tightly anchored to the news media. That’s why I would argue that, for inspiration, the profession should look not to the ideas of Lee, but to those of Bernays.
Start With the Why
What PR clients are really seeking is credibility. They are seeking authority. They are seeking third-party validation.
Ultimately, they are seeking one thing above all else: trust.
Brands need to be trusted in the marketplace, or they won’t be able to grow. Traditionally, PR professionals have leveraged third-party validation from the news media to earn trust for their clients. But media coverage alone isn’t enough anymore. In fact, it’s far from enough.
Today’s brands must gain trust in other ways.
Securing Trust at Scale
Let’s go back to the PRSA definition of public relations I referenced at the outset of this introduction because it deserves another look. To be clear, I am a longtime member and advocate of the PRSA.
I have spoken at its events, attended its conferences, judged its competitions, and held its Accredited in Public Relations credential for more than two decades.
I respect the care PRSA takes to update the definition periodically. Most recently, in 2012, the organization reached out to thousands of members, solicited hundreds of suggestions, and took a vote before announcing the new social definition.
This description has its merits. It doesn’t anchor the profession to the media or subordinate it to the marketing function.
But it’s missing something important: an objective. A CEO or CMO has never asked me to help build “mutually beneficial relationships.” That’s a means—but to what end?
To answer this question, I’ve created an alternative definition of PR. It’s short and to the point:
PR is the art of securing trust at scale.
While that’s a very specific objective, it opens up limitless possibilities for PR professionals to help brands achieve that goal.
For starters, PR practitioners should consider their first responsibility to serve as trust experts and advocates—to be the keepers of trust for brands. PR practitioners are well-suited to this role, and it certainly lifts PR to the status of strategic discipline and management function.
How should PR practitioners assert themselves in this role? In any number of ways, many of which are outlined in this book.
For example, in the same way that marketers create buyer personas, PR practitioners can create trust profiles for their clients’ target audiences to better understand the “prejudices, symbols, cliches, and verbal formulas” that influence trust.
Based on these profiles, PR pros can then master and deploy an evolving set of practices—which I describe as trust signals—to secure audience trust.
Trust Signals is all about the tools and tactics that businesses can use to build, grow, and protect their brands. And while marketers and business owners can deploy the practices outlined in this book, my belief is that this work is uniquely suited to PR practitioners— who have always focused on earning credibility rather than selling products.
PR firms and corporate communications departments don’t need to be all things to all people. They must simply become better than any other type of agency or function at understanding what makes buyers, and other audiences, trust.
If PR leaders truly want to elevate their profession—if they want to guide corporate identity, lead brand strategy, and report to the CEO again—that’s the path for doing it.
Trust Signals will show you how.
Buy Trust Signals
To get your very own copy of Trust Signals, you can find it for $0.99 (the Kindle version) on Amazon today.
You can also buy the other versions, but they’re not 99 cents.
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