The Demotion of PR, the Rise of Communications

An interesting thing crossed my desk last week. It was a corporate job description for, basically, what used to be a VP of Public Relations. The word used instead to describe the position? “Communications Lead.”

This copy relayed quite strongly that this company was not looking for a “traditional PR” exec or someone who thought like one. Media relations would be important but this was about something much bigger – customers, thought leadership, partner relations, to name a few.
In short, they want a communications strategist or specialist, which is a term I’ve been playing with lately in my search to find an accurate term for what I do.

I see this as a role that is wholly focused on the act of using communications within/for a company to build brand and grow business. This function crosses every traditionally held departmental boundary such as sales, marketing, business development, financial, product and technology and, yes, the executive suite.

When I started in PR it was using 3rd party mediums to reach a target audience. What started as writing pitches, press releases, backgrounders, audience messaging, award and speaking abstracts evolved over the years into contributed articles, product and corporate messaging, speeches, sales collateral, executive presentations, business development decks, customer service emails, and website copy. It also became about taking a step back and looking at the overall communications flow, internally and externally, the way an operations exec would. It also led to partner relations and corporate marketing opportunities. Most of the listed activities are not what PR is hired to do even though PR is, at its core, about communications. But they’re not equal. It’s subtle but the difference is actually quite big.

At the Rubicon Project, my first full-time in house position, department execs were curious why I wanted to know so much about what was happening in their respective environments. I asked questions PR people didn’t normally ask and wanted to know things they shouldn’t care about. Once they recognized that the more information and insight I had into what was going on the stronger I could make the communication flow throughout the entire company, strengthening the business and supporting their efforts in the short and long term.

PR people, by sheer nature of the industry, are not trained to use their craft to affect change in all these elements but this is what the role of a communications strategist is becoming. This is what companies want and are starting to ask for, as evidenced by the job description. And this is what a lot of PR people want to become associated with doing and are starting to shun the title altogether. Other PR pro’s are perfectly happy with the traditional description and role.

Our industry has gotten so big it’s splitting. I’ve been arguing that PR needed new PR but our true role in business has completely outgrown the term. I see Communications as the umbrella term, similar to Marketing (which is also changing,) and oversees corporate communications (including customers in some aspects,) social media/community relations, investor relations, thought leadership, industry/influencer relations and PR which is focused on media strategy, events, speaking, etc.

What does this mean for PRSA who has hung its hook on public relations? Or all those agencies who aren’t viewed by the media or businesses as communications strategists but as publicity agents? Both entities fighting for respect and recognition for being more than spinners to media and execs. It’s going to be a bumpy next few years and it will be interesting to watch it shake out.

I’m taking a self-enforced sabbatical and plan to examine a number of topics on this front that have been kicking around my head for awhile. In the mean time, I’m demoting PR.
Where do you fall? Have you used the term PR less? Substituted it with something else? Perhaps expanded your title to be more representative of your skill set? If so, all of these point to why PR is in crisis and it might be one that isn’t going to be solved.

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