Come in Spinner: A kerfuffle in a cocktail glass

The PR industry is experiencing a bit of a kerfuffle in a cocktail glass at present.

According to an ad/marketing industry website, Mumbrella, the Communications Council “has opened talks with several of Australia’s biggest public relations agencies with a view to the organisation widening its remit to include PR.”

Now a bit of deconstruction is in order. The Communication Council represents ad agencies and assorted other marketing and award groups. The “biggest PR agencies” are a number of marketing communication agencies plus Gabrielle McDowell’s operation and Michelle Hutton of Edelman. McDowell is famous for being involved in a campaign which did some damage to relationships between the beer industry and the Howard Government and which took some grovelling to overcome. Crossing John Howard on this, or any other, issue is about as smart as the Housing Industry Association having crossed Paul Keating in 1993.  But McDowell is regarded as part of the serious issues management end of the industry and Michelle Hutton is a respected player who headed Hill & Knowlton in Australia (a job once held by John Connolly) before being headhunted to Edelman. We are also in a market where there really are no “big” PR agencies any more. It should also be said that really good, creative marketing PR is a lot harder, for instance, than investor relations media work. It is much easier to get finance journalists to accept corporate views than it is to get a radio talk show host to talk about socks or underwear.

But deconstruction aside, the basis of the move is that the PR agencies apparently want to join The Communications Council because they are unhappy with the Public Relations Institute of Australia, the industry group which represents about 2500 of the PR practitioners in the country, in particular because of the way the PRIA represents marketing communications agencies and runs its annual awards, the Golden Targets.

Now no-one has ever pretended that the PRIA represents the entire industry. The membership could represent anything between 10% and 20% of the industry as a whole. Many of the senior players in the industry are not PRIA members and probably would hate being called PR people – even though PR is exactly what they do, except under another name like corporate relations, public affairs or corporate communications.  Essentially all the functions – whatever the title – are based on relationships with ‘publics’ and/or stakeholders.  And the irony is that some of these senior players don’t belong to the PRIA because it’s seen as too dominated by marketing communications.

Anyway, there was a debate on Mumbrella about the PRIA and the Golden Target Awards which, I must confess, I haven’t read. But some of the debate was no doubt about those interminable internal PR disputes around topics such as whether PR is part of the marketing function, whether PR is a profession or not and whether anyone cares about these self-obsessed debates. The debate was also portentous. One person, Stuart Gregor of Liquid Ideas (my type of agency back in the 1960s), even described it as “a big move.”

What it really represents is the insecurity which affects PR people. They feel guilt about being in PR – partly because of the way the term is used pejoratively, especially by those like politicians who draw on its skills all the time. Some marketing communications people would assuage the guilt and feel more comfortable within an advertising agency milieu although, as an advertising colleague once said to me: “Ad agencies used to run companies’ marketing. Now they get invited into the board room to re-decorate it.” The obverse of this is the PR industry, which for years spent time yearning to be in board rooms, got there and then forgot that a major part of their jobs was not listening to directors but telling directors what was going on in the wider community outside the board room.

What is clear is that kerfuffles like this are irrelevant – PR just keeps getting bigger and bigger and society is saturated with its activities. The good practitioners – in consultancy, companies, not for profits – are just accepting the reality and getting on with it. When they are involved in really serious debates they are about ethics.

What is also clear is that there are more and more PR people. Indeed, The Australian (7 May 2012), seizing on some recent ABS figures, suggested that the number of PR professionals is due to match the number of working journalists by the end of this year. The ABS data is difficult to interpret and its numbers actually include journalists and writers. The difference is unclear to say the least, or having serious implications for one or other category if it is not. The figures need some interrogation,  particularly in the context of the other ABS series on media and marketing people in general. According to the ABS figures for media and marketing are 254,000; journalists around 25,000; and, PR people about 21,500.

The divergence between PR and journalism tempts one to characterise the ABS figures as based on a category error. But whether it is an ontological mistake or not, one suspects that the number of PR people surpassed the number of journalists (if not journalists plus writers) in the US long ago and has probably surpassed it in Australia.

Declaration of interest: The author is a PRIA member.