What is PR and why does it matter?

These are two fundamental questions that you would think after 15 years in the game I would have figured out by now. Yet, I find myself asking these very questions on a regular basis. Why is it that we are so good at helping our clients talk about what they do and why it matters, yet so often when it comes to looking at ourselves, we struggle? It probably has something to do with that familiar cliché, “doctors make the worst patients”, but I also think it cuts deeper.Whenever I do think of this, I am often reminded by the time my kids asked me about my work.

They were probably six or seven and just after reading them a story, one of them, Izzy I think, asked me “Daddy, what do you do for a job?”. I responded that I do something called PR which means I help people and organisations get into the newspapers and on TV.

She then said, “But why do they want to be in the papers and on TV?”, and I explained that it was because they wanted to let everyone know about all the good things they are doing. Izzy paused, thought for a minute and came back as only a kid can, “But Daddy, that’s showing off? You are not allowed to show off!”.
As if she hadn’t done enough damage to my ego, her twin sister Heidi then twisted the knife and said, “Mummy teaches people for a job. She actually helps people, that’s a real job”. (Their mother is actually a corporate trainer and consultant, not a teacher, but I figured I had lost the argument and should make a hasty retreat at that point!).



Just like that, my professional purpose and meaning shaken to the core by two little kids. Ouch.

Thinking back on this story, the reason it rattled me is because PR is often viewed as vanity-driven, a little shallow and just nice-to-have. If I am completely honest, this is something that has troubled me ever since I walked into my first job interview in the industry. It is true that this unfortunate perception has a lot to do with the celebrity world and less the corporate. That said, the business world is certainly not immune.
The way we, as an industry, have tried to deal with this perception is by inventing ever more pompous and confusing terminology to convince the world of our depth and brilliance – strategic communications, strategic counsellors financial PR, financial communications, investor relations, corporate communications, crisis management, public affairs, reputation management, celebrity PR (rather than publicists)….the list goes on.

It even reached the point some time ago that the very term “PR” became such an embarrassment to so many in the industry that we would try to air brush it out. “Oh really, you say you work in PR, that’s, er, nice, I work in strategic communications…”. Firms would fall over themselves to use any description other than PR to talk about their businesses.
The result was a lot of noise, pretence and frankly BS. A whole generation of people running around pretending to be McKinsey, PwC or Goldman Sachs, confusing themselves and most importantly their clients.

If I had a pound for every time a new business prospect clearly had no clue whatsoever what we actually do and why it’s important, I could retire. By coming up with every name under the sun to try to “PR” our industry (yep, I like irony too) we have often only ended up alienating our clients and sending a subliminal (and maybe not so subliminal) message to ourselves that what we do isn’t serious so we need to dress it up with fancy words that are meaningless.

It is true PR has many layers, and the term has many interpretations, and some of methods and approaches are different around the world, but at the heart, the message and the value is the same. We give a voice to people and organisations that have something to say, and we protect them once they have said it.
And what does this mean in practice?

Our clients come to us to help them communicate a message to further their objectives. Typically, they are looking to reach a mixture of key stakeholders, such as investors, customers, talent, policymakers and donors .
To achieve these goals, we design communications strategies with measurable outputs to help them decide what to say, how to say it, to whom and when. What this translates to in practice is a set of key messages relevant to each stakeholder, and a plan of action that includes ways to generate regular independent media coverage in either important trade publications, prestigious international or national media, or important regional outlets (all of this being the free editorial kind, rather than the paid-for advertising kind).Or the flip side, for those clients who already have strong name recognition, it’s about shaping the media coverage so that what is published is as supportive as possible. In addition, we help them publish value-add content on their “owned” channels, such as their websites, blogs and social media accounts.
That is one side of the coin.

The other side is how we protect our clients’ reputations when things have gone wrong or they have been caught up in a scandal or other sensitive situation. In short, when the s^*t hits the fan. Then it’s about guiding them on how best to explain publicly their situation so that they maintain their integrity, whilst also mitigating the damage caused by the unforgiving court of public opinion.
Look, maybe we don’t cure cancer, save the planet or feed the poor, but our clients do and without our help, they would find it much harder to achieve their goals. That, for me, is more than enough to find meaning, purpose and value in my professional life.

And next time one of my cheeky kids tries to say that Mummy has a more important job, Daddy will be ready to answer back!

About the Author: Marc Cohen