Paul Holmes, the Brit who came to the US to edit a PR publication and stayed to become a major force for successful public relations performance, goes to court in a recent commentary, with his case for reaffirming “public relations” as the proper description of the field.

Paul makes the case that:

  1. “Public relations” describes the highest-value deliverable for corporate clients. Firms help companies “build strong, authentic, mutually beneficial relations between themselves and the public.”
  2. “PR” avoids confusion of firms as part of another industry. Paul underscores the possible confusion with a “communications” (or, information technology?) industry. And (tongue-in-check, as I read this blog), he says that very few companies are actually looking for “a perception management agency”.
  3. Surrendering “PR” sells short the ability of professionals to grow the profession. “If we are truly skilled at managing the relationships between organizations and their stakeholders, at changing perceptions, at positioning brands and managing reputations,” Paul reasons, “then the challenge of changing the relationship between the PR industry and its clients should not be beyond us.”

In support of his case, Paul summons Arthur W. Page.

“Public relations…firms,” Paul says, “have to be prepared to advise companies on policy and behavior, not just communications. Substituting just two words in Page’s dictum, they need to remember that ‘the relationships of an organization are determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says’.”

In short, Paul contends: What we do is about doing (counseling, creating and sustaining stakeholders) and not just about telling (communicating the truth).

Is this a matter for Page turning? I know. Paul is talking to agencies. But agencies anticipate and respond to (and at best, in useful ways lead) leaders on the client side, who manifest the Page Society. Can anyone witness for “communication”?

Paul’s right. Communication is nowhere near the whole story. But we had to get with the program. The terms “PR” and “public relations” became so diminished (dare I say, demonized) by reporters and editorial writers and bloggers and other scoffers that serious practitioners and professionals had to change the subject.

The Page Society a few years ago switched from chief public relations officers (CPROs) to CCOs, and peers in the C-suite seem to respect it.

And we respect our roots. Public relations principles of Page and other forebears are interpreted and applied by corporate communicators.

I like Paul Holmes. Paul encourages best practices, been here for decades and now spells behavior without a “u.”  I very much respect Paul’s pounding away at the point that the goal is to achieve results, envisioned by management and enabled by stakeholders.

Fact is, in the corporate (and thereby the agency) vernacular, as far as PR v. Communication is concerned, none of us is above a little straddling.

Many of us belong to or support the Public Relations Society of America. I do some teaching at Georgetown University. GU’s department does a magnificent straddle, offering courses leading to an MPPR—Master of Professional Studies in Public Relations and Corporate Communications; our department was delighted to get one of Paul Holmes’ SABRE awards this year.

E. Bruce Harrison,
Chairman, EnviroComm International