Harvard's Baker Library

Inside Harvard Business School's Baker Library. Image by Jeff Hester via Flickr.

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with a prospective client. At the end of the conversation, the chief marketing officer said, “I see you don’t refer to yourselves as PR pros… and your proposal doesn’t have any mention of it. Why is that?”

I explained that when people say they need a PR firm, they really mean they want someone to get them stories, which is an ego-driven metric, and only one tactic of a larger marketing and communications program.

Even though we were ending the meeting when she asked, we ended up talking for another 45 minutes about this new world we live in and what public relations really does for an organization. Which is much more than you think.

What is PR anyway?

Image by Letizia Tasselli via Flickr.

The PR industry has, for a very long time, used media relations as the example when describing what we do because it’s tangible. Just like you can hold or view an ad, you can hold or view a story a reporter has written or produced.

But while media relations is fantastic for brand awareness and credibility, it doesn’t drive business results unless it’s integrated with other tactics.

And using media relations as “the thing” the industry does is doing us a huge disservice.

There are many other tactics we use: crisis planning, monitoring and listening, issues management, messaging, creating and telling stories, speaking engagements, content development, events, guerilla marketing, internal communication, social media, lobbying, audits, market research, community development, influencer relations, blogger relations, word of mouth, contests, trends development and more.

Some of us even integrate what might be considered more traditional marketing: e-mail, database development, search engine optimization, trade shows, search engine marketing, inbound marketing, gamification and mobile technology.

When you combine tactics such as these, you have an integrated marketing and communications program that drives results – real results such as improved margins, shortened sales cycles and increased revenues.

Self-hating PR professionals

But even the new definition of PR that the Public Relations Society of America announced earlier this year doesn’t help the industry:

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

It continues to refer to media relations as the only tactic in a communicator’s toolbox. It’s like saying you have to build a house with only one hammer.

So the industry has begun to see a move toward other descriptors of what we do (social media, marketing, integrated marketing communications). Meanwhile, many of us have stopped saying we do PR.

I grew up in a traditional PR firm but I’ve been smart enough to realize organizations will pay for your relationships with journalists only for so long. They soon want to know what’s next and how those relationships will help them grow a business.

That’s something most PR pros don’t know because it requires an understanding of how an organization makes money, the difference between a balance sheet and a P&L, and how margins affect profitability.

Those are things we’re not taught in school. And, unless you run the PR firm or start your own, the closest you’ll get in your career is managing a budget.

Let’s all go to business school

Outside of Harvard's Baker Library. Image by Chris Han via Flickr.

The fact of the matter is, PR pros need a business education. The major needs to move from the liberal arts college to the business school or at least require some business classes before graduation.

Sure, most PR pros are right brained. It’s essential to be creative enough to tell stories in compelling ways, to provide valuable information that helps others do their jobs, and to build relationships on behalf of organizations.

But the PR pro of tomorrow has to fight the black eye and learn everything they can about the business side of things. Otherwise they’ll always be known as media relations specialists. And that’s just not enough anymore.