How do I explain PR without damning the industry I'm in?

For as long as I've been in the game, I have had a lot of trouble explaining what it is that I actually do. I find, even today, that my story changes to suit the occasion. One day I'm a great script writer, the next a media expert, tomorrow a corporate strategist.

I've avoided the term PR for a long time, but every now and then I have to use it to suit the occasion. PR is not a single tactic or a professional stream. It's a collective noun which covers a variety of concepts, depending on the individual's upbringing and exposure to the real world. No one person is an expert in all things to do with PR, me included.

In its broadest sense, there's no great mystery to PR. I know a lot of people who do it instinctively and they don't know the first thing about PR. In fact, you'll notice that I don't push the term in my promotional blurb. The value of PR consulting for a long time in my city was measured in bra cup sizes.

I don't mean to insult the vast majority of present day PR people who comprise my favourite sex. It's just that so many people have bastardised the industry because they bent the title Public Relations to suit themselves. Public Relations, to many people in the real estate industry, for example, meant picking up clients at the airport, showing them a good time, taking them to lunch, letting them oggle your PR lady's cleavage and diverting their attention long enough for them to sign a contract.

But PR has changed from the day I first entered the profession. The values have changed, the rules have changed and quite frankly, I think the general perception of PR as an adjunct to business has gone down rather than up. For a long time I thought university education might have helped. Now I'm not so sure. The PR profession has never been real great at explaining itself.

I'll forecast something now. PR as a single focused consultancy profession will not survive in its present form. It struggles for recognition, funding and credibility now. The dear old PR institute, which I reluctantly joined a few years ago, tries valiantly to keep the profession relevant, but I think largely fails to get the message across. Just read an issue of the PRIA newsletter. It's pathetic. For people who are supposed to be professional communicators, they don't handle the language very well. They over-write. Their copy sounds like advertorial. Take away the cliches and and text book rhetoric and there's nothing left to say. They use 'excluding jargon'.

PR will be absorbed or destroyed, just as my corner grocer was absorbed or destroyed by Woollies and Coles, by the business consultancies of the ilk of KPMG, Ernst and Young etc. You see, PR can't do enough for a business. We don't (and I include me in this) understand enough about the bigger picture of business survival to be able to give businesses the help they really need.

So how has PR changed?

When I took my first tentative steps into PR in 1975, there were not many practitioners around. All of them were like me, renegades from a newsroom.

It was expected that if one got tired of news gathering, if one felt there was no future chasing fire engines, they went into this new thing called PR.

In reality, it was not PR in the textbook sense. It was press agentry. For years after I set up my consultancy, I did exactly the same type of work as I had done throughout my earlier career; research and write stories and place them. This time, instead of working for one news agency, I worked for many.

My job was to get publicity for my clients and in the days when PR consultants still maintained stronger links within the newsrooms than they did in the business world, the task was relatively easy.

I hate to repeat this, but it is nevertheless true; but at my peak, the editor of the Gold Coast Bulletin would phone me regularly looking for stories from my not-so-obvious commercial clients. Occasionally he would be so desperate he would simply yell down the phone....I've got a three column hole on page 7, send something in and it will run. And why would it run. Because it was well written and it was legit. He could trust me because I know what was news and what wasn't. It was not commercial crap. I was smart enough to bring forward a timely comment from an industry leader who happened to be my client. If desperate, I would have one of my developer clients making some sort of pronouncement about the state of the real estate market. At least it looked and sounded legit. Such was the trust that actually existed between those on the inside and those former insiders now on the outside.

From publicity, it seemed a short step to other media and hence a smart PR practitioner (often with help from friends) became an expert in all types of print and electronic production. We learnt to write all manner of material, widening the horizon of the press release to incorporate annual reports, submissions to government and trade organisations. Then came what we call strategic planning.

Strategic planning - it means being street smart

Strategic planning is really a matter of being street smart and anticipating how people will react if a client pursues a course of action.

There were two glaring examples of poor PR strategic thinking on the Gold Coast in recent years. The first was the failed cableway up the mountain to Springbrook. Millions of dollars were poured down the sink quite unnecessarily, in my view.

The promoters will claim the fight was lost because of political timing. I say they lost the fight when they pulled that idiotic stunt with the surf lifesaving association, offering to hand over some type of donation, but, as it was subsequently revealed, only when the authorities gave the green light to the cableway. From that moment on, it was obvious to the masses that these people were trying to buy their way into an approval. Their motives may have been pure, but it was not the kind of stunt to be pulled in such a situation. When the deal was revealed, the whole campaign fell apart.

The other was the campaign by the Runaway Bay Yacht Club to steal public foreshore land for their poker machine and booze operations at the quiet foreshore park at Paradise Point. Despite a vigorous and vocal campaign by a club CEO who has since departed, the council and the government told the Club to keep its grubby hands off public property. Who the hell advised these people. And, worse, who devised the campaign which only put an entire suburb offside, annoyed the hell out of the councillors and drew nothing but attention to the club as a group of loud-mouthed yokels who wanted to get out of paying the public's expense.

How can people get it so wrong?

The PR question for each of these very public issues was, "Why didn't they know what was going to happen." Was it blind stupidity that they thought they had some God given right to press ahead with concepts which were plainly at odds with the public interest. If PR practitioners were involved, and I'm not sure that they were, one would have to ask them, "Can't you read the public mood." or "Don't you know that Councils and governments can no longer get away with commercial deals, no matter how noble the proposition, if it plainly conflicts with the prevailing public mood."

So this is where the real PR practitioner comes into his or her own.

Being brutally honest is my stock in trade

At meetings with clients, I have the reputation of being sometimes brutally frank about the chances of a proposition being supported by the authorities. Many consultants tell their clients what they want to hear and will willingly take their money until it eventually, and predictably, fails.

Not me. If I don't think the public mood will support a proposition, I say so at the first meeting. I don't always win the point, but at least it is acknowledged that what I have to say puts people on notice that they had better prepare for a fight, or at least prepare some fact sheets in advance so that they can put their case in a pro-active way, rather than fighting off the back foot.

In brief, PR is no big deal. It's common sense really.

What a good PR practitioner should have is an ability to capture in writing, or verbally, the essence of an argument or a proposition, and present it in such a way that it is at least understood, if not embraced. Publicity is just part of this communication methodology.

Good press - don't count on it

I find from experience that good press is not the be all and end all. For one thing, you can never count on it.

My advice to clients is always to consolidate your own in-house or immediate network of communication first before you venture outside.

An example. I've worked for many companies who plan to mount a public campaign in favour of a particular product position. They are prepared to spend squillions wining and dining the pollies, buttering up the columnists, smooth talking the councillors, fattening the lawyers. Do you know what they do wrong? They should be wining and dining their staff and their workers, confiding in their customers and their suppliers, involving their own networks to develop a wave of enthusiasm from within, before they venture out into the real world. Many a campaign has hit the wall, only because the people in the company itself didn't know what was going on and therefore adopted a suspicious, if not resentful stance.

For a long time I had a great deal of trouble explaining what I did for a living, especially to my parents. Nothing seemed to sound right. I wanted to say that I was a script writer and while that's true, it's only partly true.

A couple of people who have been very close to me (one a client and one a valuable friend and ally) got closest to explaining what it was I was good at. I think we all need someone on the outside, looking in, to see the obvious.

My competitive edge

One was Prof Azman Awang, of Malaysia, a very dear friend and client, who has worked with me on many great documentaries for the Government of Johor. Prof was himself no mean writer. He had a PhD in planning. Had lived and studied in New York and London. Was one of the respected academics of Malaysian politics. Every time I produced a script for him, he would read it carefully and every time, said something like "Good, Good. This is so accurate and absorbing. How do you do this. How can you pick up a mess of ideas from a dozen planners, politicians and academics, read a few reports, decide what's important, develop a strong story line and deliver a highly emotive and convincing story on film." He always followed hopefully, " Will you teach me to do this?".

"Not on your life Prof. That is my competitive edge." We'd both then laugh and fall about.

My other friend often says that I have the ability to cut through the verbage and the self interest, understand instantly what's important, come up with the options and present them without embelishment in a convincing argument.

That's it.....that's what PR is. The rest of it, like the column inches and the legendary long lunch, are merely tools of trade.


A 2004 interview with a Uni student revealed more about how I think of the PR and journalism industries.

















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