What’s the point in being a PR pro?

My wife has mentioned twice this week how great it must be to be a driving instructor and see your former pupils on the road, having taught them this life-enhancing skill.  This observation started me dwelling upon what the value of being a PR professional is?

Someone gave me a neat explanation once, saying that the PR pro’s value lay in “guiding people to products they might enjoy that they would otherwise forget, or be unaware of”. But even that sounds pretty sly.  Like saying an estate agent simply matches people with the houses they might like.

PR people do not normally grow up dreaming of the ways they could create value in the world through PR… They usually found their transferable skills whether they be strategic thinking, an interest in anthropology or a theatrical sensibility could make them great at the creativity, or thinking, or selling, necessary for PR.

So I ask again, as an individual what is the value in going into work each day and trying to make products and brands sell more successfully through lodging them into the right magazines or through creating a mega-interactive community on Facebook?

I was asking this question when PR began transforming significantly in the mid 2000s because of web 2.0 and I started finding more satisfying answers.  Suddenly, instead of only spreading whatever we were told to “make famous” we had to start MAKING stuff.  The ‘stuff’ could be unique consumer experiences that would be filmed, infographics, WOW moments involving latest technologies, social media games, films you just had to pass-on. Even the “make this famous” part began to be more interesting, as we suddenly were able to understand people better on a second by second basis, with the help of buzz monitoring tools.  No longer just selling to people based on set audience breakdowns that had been compiled up to a year earlier, but based on real-time understanding.  In short, I found the fun in PR again.

It is said there are no new ideas in PR, but the possibilities of new technology suddenly meant there were and are  (for an example, see Adidas’s recent AR work). Or at least new ideas alongside all the same sometimes more cliched ideas that are just given a “social media mechanic” as an update (but that’s life).

However, the “digital age” increasingly shows PRs to be the creators of amazing experiences for people.  Yet, some people may view us as just disingenuous slime balls with a new set of skills.  I have some sympathy for this view, you see, during my years leading digital PR work I have been asked to at different times in the last decade:

  • quieten online conversation around whether a pedophile lived on a certain companies housing estate
  • create a digital strategy and online advocacy for a cigarette brand
  • push a persons negative blog about a horrifying experience with an optical brand as far down Google as possible for said brand
  • report pragmatically on how to conquer an ocean of online conversation showing a brands health claims to probably be false

I only accepted two out of these four requests- maybe two too many, who knows. 

I have been asked to do some pretty worthy stuff in the name of  PR too – for Princes Rainforest Project, vinspired and wildlife charities.  To be fair, most often the brief is neither about helping to make a significantly better or a worse world, it is simply from a big brand saying we want more x,y,z because this year we want to sell more devices, trainers or subscriptions.

For me, as a digital PR, you have to veer between: being the equivalent of a regional theatre producer reviving popular old musicals guaranteed to sell out box offices; to being a cutting-edge artistic director, creating great theatre that wows people. Every second brief I can help do a great job for, may involve cliched activities to ensure the brand achieves what it wants for better or worse (like the regional theatre director tasked with packing an auditorium), but these are necessary deviations to allow me to be part of great moments of creation or understanding at the behest of a brand (like the cutting-edge theatre director).

 So what is the point in being a PR pro for me?

I guess the point of being a PR pro for me is that often I get the chance to think truly creatively using the palette of media and technology.  It is in those moments when I feel like PR pro doesn’t really describe in any way what I, or most PRs pros, do any more.

That’s why I don’t sneer at the increasingly odd job titles being spawned within PR and ad agencies at the moment, because we are all groping around in the dark for what fits.  It we aren’t exactly PR pros, then what are we. At the company I started at recently, Citizen Brando we are terming what we PRs do, as working in Citizen Relations, other firms are calling it working in a Recommendation Agency or an Ideas Agency.

As for what the point of the PR pro is – in the bigger existential scheme of things –  I try not to look at that too hard… it is not something best grappled with on a Friday afternoon with the weekend on its way!


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