The ‘anything but selling’ brigade in PR


There’s a curious group of people who don’t want PR to be about selling anything, and certainly don’t want it to be about getting media coverage or other third-party endorsements. They believe that there was once a golden age of PR, during which these vulgar things were never done. But, in the Sixties, marketing departments took control of budgets and made PR do things that made money.

Ever since, PR people have been forced to do “publicity”, which, it is claimed, should have nothing to do with PR.

This supposed “golden age” never existed. The two American founding fathers of modern public relations, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays, were prodigious users of media relations. Both were former journalists. Lee invented the press release in 1905. He also wrote a book, based on his speeches, called Publicity.

The British founder of modern public relations, Sir Basil Clarke, had been a Daily Mail and Guardian journalist, worked as a press officer, principally did PR through media relations, and created the first British PR agency, known as Editorial Services. Its early clients, according to Richard Evans’s biography, “included the national Milk Publicity Council, for which it secured an average of 135 newspaper cuttings per month”.

Some in-house PR teams run away from doing media relations, because – at the very basic level of “Did we get any coverage?” – success or failure is black and white. It is much easier to say that securing media coverage and other weighty third-party endorsements no longer matter, and just concentrate on things where failure cannot be easily measured. Like lobbying for a seat on the board or sitting in meetings all day pretending to be profound.

The result of such nonsense is that chief executives frequently have no idea what their PR department is up to, and whether it is doing any good. As Fraser Seitel, the former senior vice president and director of public affairs at of Chase Manhattan Bank, explained: “In most people’s minds (including, importantly, those who pay public relations people), it is publicity – the ability to earn ‘endorsement’ from an objective, unbiased, indifferent and neutral third party – that constitutes the essence of public relations.

“That’s why it really is criminal that many people engaged in public relations don’t know the first thing about dealing with the media.”