What business are you in?
Charting the future of public relations
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What business are you in?

Paul Holmes

Over the past three weeks, I met with about 60 of the leading public relations firms in North America, with sessions that ranged from a relatively informal 60-minute breakfasts with agency principals to 3-hour Powerpoint presentations featuring an entire leadership team. These meetings are incredibly informative, and they help to clarify my thinking about the business, often by raising some fairly fundamental questions. And one of the questions that came up more than once during this round of meeting is perhaps the most fundamental one of all: what business are we in, really? That may sound like a silly question. We are in the public relations business, right? But what is the public relations business, exactly? What is the product we are selling—and more important, what is the value we are adding for our clients? It appears that there are several answers to that question, and that while all of them have some merit, at the very least agencies need to figure out their answer—since it will determine their place in the market going forward. The first answer, the one that defined our business for many decades, was that we were in the media relations or publicity business. A slightly modified and modernized version of that idea might be that we are in the earned media business. Earned media, after all, was the most tangible thing we delivered that differentiated us from the advertising agencies. That’s the answer I suspect the majority of clients would still give, but it defines the industry by a delivery mechanism, rather than the value that is being delivered. It’s not quite like thinking that you’re in the horse-driven carriage business when you’re really in the conveyance or transportation business—but it may carry some of the same risks if clients suddenly realize they want something bigger or broader. The second answer, one adopted by a growing number of agencies (and an even greater number of in-house PR departments) is that we are in the communications business, which eliminates the somewhat limiting emphasis on earned media and opens the door to paid and owned, increasingly part of the mix of media that PR people use. But it doesn’t address a key issue, which is that communication is a means to an end, not the end itself. What about the advocacy business? It has some of same issues, but advocacy sounds stronger than communications, and the value it can deliver—whether it’s advocating for a brand in the consumer market or for an issue in the public affairs realm—is clear. (I think this description of the business is even stronger if it includes internal advocacy too, which is to say advocating for stakeholders inside the company, and/or advocating for the company to take a particular position on an issue.) Or perhaps the business we are really in is the trust business, or the credibility business. These are all satisfactory answers. If we can actually deliver those things, and demonstrate our ability to deliver them, we are providing our clients with something of real value. And again, this description of the business is even more compelling if we make it clear that we are not only creating or maintaining trust, but also leveraging it, turning it into a source of competitive advantage. Of course, it will come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading my thoughts on the business for more than the length of this post that my favorite answer is that we are in the relationship business. In addition to being right there in the name—public relations—this definition focuses in on the key value that PR can and should deliver to organizations. In the era of engagement (another possible answer to the original question, by the way), relationships have never been more valuable or more fragile. Companies that understand how to nurture and leverage stakeholder relationships get harder working employees, more loyal customers, more supportive communities. And when relationships go bad, almost everything a company tries to do becomes more expensive, more time-consuming. As I said, I don’t know that there’s one right answer to this. It depends on your temperament, your passion, and your skill-set. So tell me, what business are you in—and why?
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