THE DEFINITION OF INSANITY

I’ve never felt the need to ask a doctor, architect, accountant or engineer to define what they do. I doubt they’ve invested much energy debating it among themselves.  Yet for as long as I’ve been in public relations, this industry has been distracted by a need to define itself. The Public Relations Society of America is the latest institution to have a go at addressing this insecurity.

The PRSA’s X-Factor-esqe adventure took almost a year to complete and included hundreds of initial suggestions. These were eventually whittled down to a shortlist of three. The final three were voted upon by 1446 industry professionals.  The following ‘modern definition’ was declared the winner, and got the PR equivalent of a record deal, which is pride of place on the PRSA website:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Not a strong candidate for a Plain English award and, inevitably, few are entirely happy with the new definition.  ‘Crowdsourcing’ might be a good way to find new music or film recommendations but, when it comes to creating an industry definition is the ultimate creation by super committee.

I have resisted the temptation to propose an alternative.  This is not because I don’t think I could come up with better, but because enough time has been wasted already.  After 20 years, my mother still doesn’t understand what I do.  She’s stopped asking and I’ve stopped trying to explain. Despite this, we still get along.  Our industry grows year on year and PR remains one of the most sought after careers among those too young to know better.  As an industry, we have other things to worry about, like how to master social media, how to improve quality and training and how, sometimes, clients worry that we might be wasting their fees and expenses on unnecessary frivolities.

Einstein said that one definition of insanity was to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome.  Einstein was a clever bloke.

Let’s get comfortable with who we are and what we do and waste not a second more searching for a definition that some consider the Holy Grail – if we were to find it, I would wager, it would change not a single thing for anyone.

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LOCKING STABLE DOORS

The editor of the Press Gazette has argued today that the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson’s persistent reluctance to answer a direct question with a straight answer strengthens the case for better regulation of the public relations industry.

The case for the prosecution stems from the Downing Street official’s obfuscation when asked by Christopher Hope, the Telegraph’s senior political reporter, to confirm whether Mr Cameron had enjoyed a jaunt aboard Raisa.  Raisa, sadly anonymous during a life of public service but how enjoying posthumous celebrity, was the retired Met Police horse transferred to the care of Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of World, and her horse-training husband Charlie between 2008 and 2010.

David Cameron eventually admitted that he had indeed ridden Raisa while leader of HM Opposition, but not as PM.  It would have been preferable had the Downing Street spokesperson not refused to answer a simple question when there was nothing apparent to hide. Having said that, I’ve lost count of the number of simply untrue stories that I’ve denied on the record to reporters, only to see those stories appear in print anyway with my denial usually the last sentence of the story.

Are there rogue PR people who have deliberately lied to or misled journalists?  Yes, there are. But this no more indicates that we’re all guilty of doing so than the existence of a rogue reporter suggests every journalist has hacked a voicemail account or bribed a public official.  Tarring everybody with the same brush, whether they’re a reporter or a public relations person, advances nothing.  I’ve been both.

That doesn’t mean that the PR industry doesn’t acknowledge the benefits of greater transparency.  The public relations and public affairs industry is currently working through the terms of a new regulatory regime, though consensus on the scope of the legislation seems a little evasive.  I would like the pace of progress to be faster, but lots of people have views that need accounting.

It does seem to me that the more the economic downturn endures, the more our public institutions turn on one another.  What a shame that this uneasiness with the standards in public life was less evident when the economy was propelled by nothing more than jet fuel fumes.  There are a lot of stable doors being shut long after the horse has bolted, and not just Raisa who we now know carried David Cameron in her saddle across Oxfordshire’s rolling hills.

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THE PRICE OF FREE

Goggle’s users are up in arms, universally agitated by the company’s new privacy policy and the way it’s being introduced and implemented.  “Don’t you think their communications on the issue have been dreadful,” a colleague asked using his Gmail account last night, adding: “They’re treating their customers with contempt and I think they’ll lose customers over this.”  At face value, his concern looks like a reasonable conclusion.

But the point my friend is missing is that he’s not a Google customer.  Nor are the hundreds of millions of people around the world that use Google to search the internet, carry out perfunctory translations, find directions or a myriad of other online tasks every day.

Customers write cheques.  Advertisers are Google’s customers. Those of us that use Google’s free services are not customers.  The new privacy policy is designed to enable Google to provide better-targeted advertising which, in turn, will lead to better audiences for advertisers and higher revenue for Google.  Rather than customers, those of us who use Google’s services are core components of Google’s products.  However distasteful the thought will be to many, Google manages and sells us as assets.  That’s the price of a free service.

Twitter, another free service, is rumoured to be considering selling its back catalogue of tweets so that the relevant data can be extracted and used for profit by commercial entities. If Twitter does, such an act of treason will undoubtedly attract similar criticism.  But having a Twitter (or Facebook) account doesn’t make you a customer.  It makes you an asset to be optimised, monetised and sold to the highest bidder.

Whether Google’s new policy contravenes privacy laws as many have suggested will be assessed by others elsewhere.  But have they got their communications wrong?  They could of course have done more to engage with their users over the new policies but it would have been a losing battle.

We’re comfortable in the traditional role as customers where we feel we have a degree of control and resent being treated like assets.  But the new business models ushered in by the Internet changed the rules and leaves us with a choice:  put up with it and get on with paying indirectly for services we gain value from, or start paying directly.

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