«What are you studying, PR? What does it mean?» – my grandmother keeps asking me this question every time we meet. And she’s not the only one among my relatives and friends who have no idea what is PR and what PR manager does.
There’s an objective reason why PR people did not want to let the public know what they are doing daily in the past. In the early days of public relations’ industry, our profession was widely operating with such an unpopular method as manipulation. But nowadays more and more theorists claim that PR tends to imply two-way communication model supposed by J. Grunig and T. Hunt in 1984. Due to this model, the most developed PR aims to build mutually beneficial relationships with customers and other stakeholders. This model describes PR as important and positive practice so there’s no need for professionals to keep secrecy about their job. But obviously, the profession stays obscure for public. In this controversy only one side can be right: either PR activities should be fully transparent for public, or the public relations industry is still far away from the ideal concept of mutually beneficial communication.
Transparency is often declared to be one of the main principals for PR professionals, but in practice, this principle is applied only to cases of clients and not to the actions by PR teams. They always stay in shadow (C. Grimshaw, 2004). Which data is available to the consumer of the most open companies? Financial reports, advertising budgets, numbers of employees… But nothing about PR activity. Maybe, because being transparent is also one of PR strategies nowadays? Any PR tactic will work only while the audience – no matter if they are consumers, suppliers, employees or journalists – believe it not to be a PR tactic. While we aim to increase trust in the company and empower the position of the brand at the market, we need to hide and let things look the natural way.
The idealistic model of two-way communication means absolutely new tactics and instruments for PR as well as the change of its role in the companies. To make this model true, PR people should have access to people who rule the company and make the main managing decisions or even to be part of this board (J. Grunig, 2001). To satisfy all demands from customers, employees, partners, other external parties the person should have access to budget planning and production process, working schedule and supplying system… To react efficiently on all incoming applications and feedback the system should change. But how often now PR specialists have access at least to the board meetings? In majority of cases, PR department works under the existing conditions in terms of budget, product specifications, and communication channels. They have no real influence on the top-management decisions and need to fit the structure. In this state of affairs, PR could never become the two-way symmetrical communication and will always be based on manipulation.
Will my grandmother ever find out from TV news or a movie what PR people do? I’m afraid, it’s impossible in the nearest future. While the system is far away from the ideal model, the PR will play in hide and seek. And appear in front of the cameras time to time during the crisis situations, or in satirical light as in ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ or ‘Twenty Twelve’ series.
Chris Grimshaw (2004). Corporate Watch: Newsletter 19: We’re Dangerous? Corporate Watch. Available from https://corporatewatch.org/content/corporate-watch-newsletter-19-were-dangerous.
James Grunig (2001). The Role of Public Relations in Management And Its Contribution to Organizational and Societal Effectiveness. Speech delivered in Taipei, Taiwan, May 12, 2001. Available from http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2001_PRManagement.pdf.