Does PR have an identity crisis?

Nothing riles a PR professional more than the range of terms, often inaccurate, mostly incomplete, used to describe the PR profession. Many PR professionals will tell you that they have trouble defining what exactly they do to their family and friends. Terms like PRO, media relations, lobbying, shaping perception calls to mind activity that is essential but not given it's due openly.

History doesn’t tell us whether Emperor Ashoka had a PR relations team, but the warlike-king-turned-peace-lover certainly understood the value of PR. He issued 33 Edicts on Ashoka Pillars, caves and boulders about Buddhism. Possibly one of the earliest press releases known to mankind, there was a definite spin to the edicts which was social and moral, rather than pure religion. So, considering PR is an activity as old as the human race, why does the PR profession struggle to define itself? And what should the new definition be?

Topping the list of changes to define PR is the view that the word agency should not be used to describe PR companies. Does this really matter that much? According to Amith Prabhu, Founder of PRAXIS and PRONTO, “It matters for two reasons. First of all, PR firms have traditionally been acquired by large holding groups that have big ad agencies, and PR firms have been bracketed alongside these ad agencies, but in reality PR firms work closely with the Chief Executive’s office while ad agencies work with the Chief Marketing Officer or Brand Manager. Therefore PR firms, by being referred to as agencies, have been considered transactional and sophisticated courier companies. Secondly, do we call law firms 'law agencies'? We don’t and despite all the jokes about lawyers, the law firms command a good fee and a great amount of respect. So, the business of PR counsel is led by firms which earn a retainer and not by agencies which earn commissions."

Other PR professionals such as Saurabh Rathore Managing Partner, Moe’s Art Pvt. Ltd., feel that “At any given point, there are so many agencies that work with a brand now: Advertising agency, PR agency, activation agency, digital agency, so the term is not limited to just one particular company. It’s like being called a vendor which is equally (or more) distasteful.”

Priyam Chakraborty, Account Executive, Zeenah PR is also against the word agency; “I strongly believe that that an agency label doesn't, in its entirety, do justice to the services that a public relations consultancy provides to its clients. Most PR consultancies are doing much more than managing media and churning out press releases, hence an appropriate coinage is essential. Furthermore, most professional PR firms do not charge a commission; hence the ‘agency’ aspect gets completely obliterated."

Amith adds that “The word agency should be replaced with firm or company. Not a single respectable PR firm will use the agency word on their website or official communications. Agency is not a bad word. It is just the wrong word and for many an easy word.”

Does the change in description also indicate a change in the fee structure? "Globally, the hour wise payment structure is a well accepted practice. With time and maturity, this could be adapted to the Indian market as well. However, a healthy mix of a retained contract inclusive of a well defined scope of work and pre-decided hourly rates is becoming a trend and is definitely a model that PR firms can look towards,” adds Priyam.

Saurabh says the word agency goes down to the core of what is it that PR does. He says it is a question of domain expertise and the role of a PR company: “During meetings, most of the time, clients introduce you as an ‘agency’, even though you might be the only person representing your company in the meeting. I don’t mind being called an agency but if it has to do with being referred to by your domain expertise, we should be called communication experts.”

What are the words that PR professionals would like to see banned from PR? PRO is another one that gets everyone exercised. Saurabh says, "PRO is suited better for individuals who handle movie celebs and we all know, in the credits of 1970-80s movies, that’s how PR individuals were referred to. Over time, the role of a so-called PRO has increased manifold and it’s a fully-fledged PR team that works on a particular client now, hence the term should be shunned.”

Saurabh also says that he hates being describes as “‘Yeh hamara media ka kaam sambhalte hai’, ‘Press release bhejne wala’.”

While many would argue that these are nothing but handy descriptors and as long as the work gets done effectively, how does it make a real difference in terms of deliverables, remuneration and daily functioning of a PR professional?

Amith says these are necessary changes going to the heart of how PR sees itself: “I think we need to move from public relations to public communications. Because relations is a confusing term in a highly complex world. There is already a discussion on this topic. Secondly, the PR business is growing and evolving worldwide but it is not a industry in the true sense. It is an enabler of multiple industries. So the two words I would change instead of banning would be relations with communications and industry with community or business depending on the usage.”

PR industry or PR business, PR agency or PR company, PRO and media relations officer or PR professional, public relations or public communications? Whatever you may decide to call it, there is no doubt that an increasingly assertive group of PR professionals want the description to match the complexity of the work they do.

There is clearly a lot in a name.