The opportunity for public relations

It’s time to reveal Chapter 3 of #FuturePRoof. In this chapter, Dr Jon White explains how public relations advisors can help business, political and other leaders deal with increasing complexity in the challenges they face.

We’ll be revealing a new chapter each day – keep up to date with us on Twitter at @WeArePRoofed.


You’ll learn:

·         The role of public relations in influencing behaviour

·         Why today’s world needs more public relations professionals, not fewer

·         Why practitioners who don’t engage in continuous professional development face obsolescence


·         Public Relations: relevant and necessary?

·         Professional standards and qualifications for practice

On September 10 2015, PR Week reported Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ahead of the publication of his new book, Connect. The interview discussed the need for managers to take responsibility for their companies without hiding behind PRs and CSR departments.

Asked if firms should get rid of their PR department, Lord Browne replied: "Probably, yes. I think there’s obviously some sort of interface needed [with the media] but there’s too much which is unrelated to the reality of what is actually happening and too little understanding of how companies are affecting the different bits of society they are involved in."

The PR Week article noted that Browne dismissed the suggestion PR teams were needed to stop managers speaking off the cuff. He said: "When something goes wrong, you need to say so. Failure cannot be dressed up as a different form of success."  

Browne also said CSR departments had become "divorced" from the mainstream of what their company does in real life.

Browne stated: "One of the props that people have relied upon is corporate social responsibility, and that's allowed a lot of companies to detach the activity of communicating and being involved with stakeholders almost into a side pocket."

Public relations is part of the management role

On the basis of his and BP’s experience, we could argue about whether or not Lord Browne is a particularly credible commentator on public relations as a part of the overall management task, but his comments do illustrate some of the difficulties and challenges public relations faces in establishing its relevance.

It is, in fact, more than relevant, it is now a necessary part of the management of the modern organisation, as well as a fact of social life. 

When Kevin Murray, then of Chime now chairman of Good Relations, and I interviewed chief executives in 2004 about their views of public relations, they were quite clear on its value.

Public relations historians tell us that public relations in more or less developed form has been a part of human social history. They point to practices in ancient Greece and Rome, or in Renaissance Italy, which we can recognise as similar to public relations today. 

In its modern form, public relations as a separate set of activities and approaches to the achievement of business and political objectives began to be marked out – and labelled – in the early part of the twentieth century.

Public relations is about influencing behaviour

It has evolved to become a set of practices directed at influencing behaviour in relationships – an applied psychology of relationships, within and between groups, focused on how, practically, the behaviour of groups of people can be influenced so that they behave in ways allowing particular objectives to be achieved.

Public relations makes use of communication, and is often confused with communication, or mislabelled as communication.

Out of the set of management tasks, it has become the one which attends to, and takes steps to influence the development, growth and maintenance of important relationships - as Edward Bernays said in the early days of its development in the 1920s, the relationships on which an organisation depends for survival and prosperity.  In this, the focus of work is on how groups and individuals are behaving. Are they, for example, giving the support that might be needed?

We need more public relations practitioners, not fewer

More fundamentally, public relations is necessary because of increasing complexity in the social world, in global, political and economic developments and because of technological developments. 

This increased complexity, global developments, technological innovation and impact of these on social relationships demands closer attention – and the emergence of roles in business, political and other organisations to provide this. This all translates through into action on relationships.

It’s worth bearing in mind a view from biology that living systems tend toward greater complexity. The complexity in society – national, international – we observe now is a fact of evolution, and will continue to develop. 

As it does, say through the interplay between technology and society, there will be more, not less, need for mediators in social relationships. And therein lie continuing needs for capable public relations practice.

It’s time for the public relations profession to grasp the nettle

Will those working or coming to work in public relations rise to the opportunities that are clearly there? 

In the UK, when the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) looked ahead from 2011 to 2020 [1], a number of its members expressed doubts that they would.

Scenarios developed in discussions up and down the country raised questions about the continuing relevance of public relations, its ability to withstand challenges from others, such as management consultants, and commitment to necessary professional development.

These are not new concerns, and there are ready reassurances available to meet them. The practice is relevant and more, it is a necessity. Challenges from others will be met through confidence based on knowledge, expertise and demonstrated competence in performance.

These are all areas currently being addressed. The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management is currently looking again at the body of knowledge required for public relations work [2]. The questions of what it means to be competent in public relations are being looked at in detail in this publication asking how to #FuturePRoof public relations, and national associations such as CIPR are emphasizing the need for continuing professional development (CPD).

CPD: evolve or die

It has to be emphasized that it is not possible to remain current, and to keep abreast of changes requiring better use of public relations, without committing to, and following through on continuing professional development.  To do otherwise is to accept early professional obsolescence.

Because of what it means to be effective in practice, the knowledge, skills and competences required, the question of appropriate qualifications for practice can be a difficult one to answer.  At the moment, in countries like the UK, the answer is being sought in requirements for chartered status, where to achieve this means committing to CPD over a period of time, and submitting to an examination of thinking about practice (a short paper on a topic relating to public relations) and professional experience. Similar approaches are followed in the accreditation programmes available in countries like the US and Canada.

Against the more rigorous paths taken by advisors in other areas such as finance or general management consultancy, these programmes will – in the near future – have to be strengthened, if public relations advisors are to gain the recognition that they aspire to and that they need to be effective in their work.


Dr Jon White PhD FCIPR, is a consultant and visiting professor at Henley Business School and Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC).

Twitter: @DrJonWhite