Corporate public relations has its roots in war. When the U.S. finally decided to enter into the First World War, the American government started hiring for all sorts of jobs to support its war machine. One of those jobs was for the Committee on Public Information. The man who was hired for this job was an Austrian immigrant press agent named Edward Louis Bernays, the nephew of famed psychologist Sigmund Freud. He spent his time creating “front groups” for the Bureau of Latin-American Affairs to help sway public opinion about the war in Europe to try to gain support and resources from the countries to the south.
After the war ended he set off to ply his trade of “psychological warfare” in the public sector, setting up a public relations company in New York. He went on to have success with high profile clients like Lucky Strike, where he pushed the importance of female thinness and proposed smoking as a better alternative to eating, and Dixie Cup, where he pushed the notion that disposable cups were the only way to be sure that your drinking water was sanitary by linking the imagery of an overflowing cup with subliminal images of vaginas and venereal disease. He went on to write multiple books on the subject and was an outspoken voice for how public relations was a different industry than traditional marketing.
And the business world believed him. You could argue that this, in the end, was Bernays’ most successful psychological warfare campaign. PR has been seen as a dark art for a company’s communication outreach, something best outsourced to mysterious wizards that brew their potions behind closed doors. But then, the internet happened.
PR has been seen as a dark art for a company’s communication outreach, something best outsourced to mysterious wizards that brew their potions behind closed doors.
Part of the power that PR specialists carried was their ability to reach a broad audience through publications. The ease of publication that the world wide web facilitates created new avenues for companies to influence the masses. At the same time, the increased amount of “published” information has led to the cultural change of increased value placed on authenticity. “Earned media” became as self-promotional as advertisements and the audience responded with an understandable amount of skepticism.
Now, the marketing world is starting to catch on. Public relations is no longer seen as an unaffiliated offshoot of the communication strategy. Companies now understand that branding is best with a unified messaging approach. There is no such thing as PR because it is really just a part of a larger marketing effort. When it comes to public perception there is no separation between messaging channels. This means that media outreach is being included when brands are crafting their marketing strategy. Outreach to writers and publications is now often being done by the company itself in an effort to find ways to incorporate its marketing efforts into editorial content.
But alas, not all industries have fully adopted this. Some still blindly expect a PR agency to take over their media outreach. I think you could still put most of the real estate companies in this category. I get press releases every day announcing a new real estate project and congratulating themselves for their completed sale or lease-up. These tone-deaf outreaches are a constant reminder of how far the industry has to go before its “public relations” is as sophisticated as its “traditional marketing.”
I do have hope for the future, though. Increasingly I am seeing a combination of forward-thinking PR firms and in-house marketing teams making PR a much larger part of the messaging conversation. Because, after all, there is no such thing as “PR.”
One of the biggest changes in how we incorporate PR in marketing communications is to use it to understand your messaging just as much as to spread it. From the outside looking in marketing is all about talking. We see the content produced and think that it all comes from some Draper-esque oracle that has their finger forever on the pulse of public perception. But in reality, marketing is more about listening. Bolstered by the analytics that digital publication has provided modern marketers are constantly adjusting their marketing based on rather clearly quantified feedback loops. PR is starting to do the same. Because, after all, there is no such thing as PR.
I spoke with Christa Segalini, Executive VP of Antenna, a real estate focused public relations agency. She is one of the forward thinkers I spoke of earlier, about how she is seeing the “industry” of public relations changing. “The relationship between PR agency and client is much more of a two-way relationship now,” she said. “We do our best work when we are able to help craft the messaging, not just be a mouthpiece. Now, when we have our first consultative appointments with prospects we are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing us. If they don’t ask us many questions about what we are doing and what is working, we see that as a red flag.”
If they don’t ask us many questions about what we are doing and what is working, we see that as a red flag.
This is something that we have found at Propmodo as well. We adopt an agency approach with our clients as well because we think that we do our best work and find the best success when our creative input is adopted. There is always an interesting balance when it comes to any consulting work, where the desires to speak your mind are often offset by your need to appease a paying customer. But, at the end of the day, you are judged by your output so doing sub-par work is not a sustainable business model.
The same way that technology has changed the way marketers and publishers are able to understand how their content is performing, it has also focused the spotlight more on how PR can contribute to an organization’s goals. Courtney Porcella is the Director of Marketing at CoUrbanize. She has worked as both a PR consultant and as an in-house communications director. She told me, “PR campaigns were once measured in ‘soft metrics.’ But, today it’s all about revenue attribution. When you can say to a CEO or board of directors that public relations, down to specific pieces of coverage, has contributed or influenced a percentage of sales pipeline and revenue, you can defend the value of PR in terms they understand and metrics that actually matter to the business.”
Ultimately “godfather of PR” Edward Louis Bernays’ history is a spotted one. He is remembered as a visionary, sure, but a bit of slime-ball as well. His legacy seems to parallel the larger public sentiment for the PR “industry.” It has always been seen as a necessary evil, like an overstated boxing promoter who finds every way to steer the conversation about his champ’s inevitable success. It is this feeling that those working in PR are rightly trying to change. For public relations to be a bigger part of the marketing conversation it needs to walk and talk more like a marketer. This means listening as much as talking, being useful as well as self-promotional and being responsible for the repercussions of its messaging. If this feels like too big of a step for PR to make, perhaps it’s because you too have been duped by Bernays and his contemporaries. Because, after all, there is no such thing as “PR.”