Magazine article Communication World

PR Sages See Growth at Cost of Identity

Magazine article Communication World

PR Sages See Growth at Cost of Identity

Article excerpt

The multi-billion dollar public relations industry is in a professional "Catch 22"-the more services it offers in more places, the more it evolves into the provider of commodity services, blurring its once distinctive identity from other corporate functions. This was the consensus from public relations' elder statesmen and women in a frank and wide ranging exchange of views shared exclusively with CW.

Further, they are not sanguine that the 1990s will measure up to the platform rhetoric prevalent, although they stopped short of calling it hyperbole. The future course of public relations will more likely come down to a fundamental contest between those doing the quantitative-the marketing and projects activity which predominate, and those opting for the qualitative-the counseling.

They take no sides, suggesting "things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing!"

Besides, as James F. Fox somewhat mischievously put it, counseling, if you mean oral advice, may always have been more a myth than reality."

The founding Fellows, some 65 percent of those available participating, span

more than a half century of activity and represent a mix of the academic and corporate practitioners and past and current counselors. Each is a PRSA Gold Anvil winner-the earliest won in 1948, the latest, 1988.

Despite their seniority, there were no nostalgic reminiscences about the good old days." Instead, they offered their comments in a pragmatic, contemporary manner.

Service: Volume Up, Quality Down

Judgments on the quality of service provided are, of course, in the eye of the beholder, the client or management. But 50 percent of the Fellows felt that volume is compromising quality, citing the number of clients served by one practitioner. What Philip Lesly calls institutionalization, the need for hundreds of interchangeable parts known as public relations people, makes standardization a cost control must-and increases the homogeneity of the profession. Or is it a profession? Edward L. Bernays argues. "No, it's a vocation."

Because public relations is chameleon to its environment, Allen Center believes conglomerization will continue as long as clients conglomerate. But, this pragmatism aside, most Fellows (64 percent) see the mega-agencies approaching their perigee, ultimately self-destructing and giving rise to smaller, entrepreneurial units.

Revival of Personal 'Touch'

An elephant is as functional as a fox, but for different reasons. Mega-agencies, therefore, have a distinct role. The basic concern of the Fellows was on the mushrooming overhead burden and the paralleling need to hold creative services hostage to the bottom line. Chester Burger thought this tended to negate any meaningful quality control, while Frank Wylie felt that specialization's value is offset by the lack of opportunity to develop an intimacy with the client, what Betsy Ann Plank characterizes as "a family chemistry." Wylie also sees the retainer fees of the mega-agencies "prohibitive."

Center is less concerned about size than he is about the attitude and values of those rendering the service and the cost-benefit ratio. These dictate at what point bigness gets in the way, he says, and changes the way the game is played. Ralph Frede notes that it will take extremely sophisticated management to keep the mega-agencies viable (each of the Fellows has lived through the dissolution in 1967 of Marion Harper's globe-spanning communication empire).

The partnership of public relations with advertising (sometimes as junior partner) raised concern about a CEO's perception of what, really, is PR. If it's seen as a form of advertising, albeit a separate methodology, it tends to add to the discretionary nature of PR, it was felt. This moves it from a decision-making component in management's eyes to a cash-register problem-solving option. Both skills, Harold Burson reminds us, have been around for a long time. …

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