PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Calls to scrap "public relations" or re-invent it aren't new.
© 2011 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Newcomers to public relations may be surprized by the recent spate of journal articles that advocate changes in communication practices, propose new roles for business communicators, and suggest changing the name of the profession and its practitioners.

The truth is such changes have been more of a norm than an exception for over 100 years. Public relations has never been a staid and settled field with universally accepted roles and nomenclature. It's been evolving for as long as it's been a profession and, as a field that centers on human relationships, it will always be like way. The current changes, economic uncertainties, and calls for reform should be seen in this light, and practitioners should accept that they'll always work on shifting sands.

Professional communicators have always been obsessed with what to call themselves and have spent inordinate amounts of time thinking, writing, and talking about it. -- Are we writers or authors, speakers or orators, photographers or photojournalists, marketers or advertisers, publicists or promoters, rehetoricians or ... -- Such debates are almost a part of our profession, and well they should be. After all, if we want others to understand and act on our messages, don't we first need to understand who and what we are?

The first version of my online article The changing name of public relations was written almost 20 years ago and has been updated every 4-5 years since, and it's close to needing another revision now. This isn't because the underlying concepts of public relations have changed; it's because some public relations practitioners are now using new tools and/or want to call themselves something new or more-politically-correct or more "in" than whatever term they've been using.


Despite a flood of rhetoric, social media won't significantly change the role of public relations.

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc., and blogging which some see as part of social media and others see as a separate phenomenon have already had a tremendous impact on professional communicators and on how we work and how we see ourselves. Hundreds of articles have been written and scores of conference presentations have been made; most urge communicators to get more deeply and proactively involved in using social media.

Barbara Fagan-Smith's article, The Changing Role of the Communication Professional, published online in the March 2011 issue of IABC's CW Bulletin, is one of the more thoughtful ones. It not only addresses the impacts of social media but also talks about the distinction between being a communication technician and a communication manager. It includes four take-away points we should all keep in mind:

Another recent online article addressing the changing role of communicators is Reinventing corporate communication by Daniel Munslow. It is essentially a report on a presentation Steve Crescenzo (Crescenzo Communications, Chicago) made at last year's IABC World Conference and takes a different tack than Fagan-Smith's article.

While Fagan-Smith advocated a single, unifying role for all communicators, Munslow and Crescenzo identified seven different roles that communicators need to play and which they can shift in and out of as needed. They include:

  1. Talent
  2. Talent scout
  3. Big picture painter
  4. Community organizer
  5. Multimedia story teller
  6. Social media coach
  7. Creative strategist

My own observation is: with the exception of social media coach, all of the roles mentioned here are activities that successful public relations practitioners have been engaged in for decades. Even social media coaching isn't brand new. Practitioners like the prolific and Web-saavy Shel Holtz have been doing it for years. It is, however, a role that more practitioners need to grow into.

These articles are certainly worth reading and thinking about, but there's really nothing revolutionary in either one of them.


More radical-sounding calls to action often turn out to be primarily mind games.

"If you want to evolve, you need to kill PR." certainly seemed radical when I first read it in Steve Farnsworth's The @Steveology Blog, but it ultimately proved to be little more than a ploy to attract attention, trigger thought, and generate feedback.

The full posting, titled To Stay Relevant How Do Communications Professionals Need To Evolve?, turned out to be much more low key and mundane. In fact, it quickly asserted: "This is not a PR is Dead post." The central tenet that followed was quite conventional and very mainstream: "Relating to the public is now as important as ever. Your smart practices on quality communications are extremely valuable, but I think to stay fresh you will need to shift your view of yourself from a company communicator to that of a communities facilitator."

Like the other authors, Farnsworth makes some good points, but none that are terribly new or different. Beyond that, all three of these authors have over-stated and over-sold the importance of what they have to say. Changing your self-perceived role as a professional, adding a new role to your repertorie, or learning to use new communication tools isn't necessarily a big deal and needn't be traumatic for the individual or for the profession. After all, the field has been constantly changing since the mid-19th century.


Coping with change and its impact is an ever-present aspect of public relations.

Consider, for instance, the impact high-speed offset printing and electrostatic (Xerographic) printing had on all of the print media, or the impact audio recording and duplication had on radio, or the impact of broadcast and Internet distribution on corporate communication. Despite the cries of alarm that initially accompanied them, none of these developments turned out to signal the end of public relations. Nor did they transform its underlying concepts or principles. They merely gave it new tools to work with, tools which some practitioners adopted and adapted to more quickly and effectively than others.

The same has been, and will continue to be, true of the computer, the Internet, and social media. Public relations isn't facing a revolution, merely evolution.


Are you, as a practitioner, adaptable enough to evolve?


Links to readings on related concepts or other recent trends in public relations
Calls to scrap public relations aren't new Changing names of public relations Keeping pace with changing practices
in journalism
On the way to Integrated Marketing Communication? Still seeking a definition after all these years Three phases of PR development
Table of contents Content curation:
A new role or merely a buzzword?
Practicing Public Relations
home page
15 Oct 2016