Two weeks ago, at a lunch with senior PR people in Singapore, the conversation drifted to how to make senior executives in corporations understand what PR people can do for them.

The conversation went on a predictable course: lamentation of how difficult it is to explain to others what PR people do, let alone what they are capable of doing. There was the self congratulatory we-do-so-many-things idea, the we-are-so-inexpensive-compared to-others idea and the usual other cliches.

But they all agreed that it is soooo difficult to explain what PR does.

I couldn’t help but wonder then, why these senior people are doing in PR. After all, isn’t the PR professional’s core competency to “package” complex ideas into attractive, bite-sized packages so that others can easily understand them?

I tried to say so but after a microsecond of wtf-are-you-trying-son glimpse form those assembled, the conversation was deftly commandeered into safer harbors by the moderator.

This, I think is the crux of the problem with the PR industry and it gives rise to findings such as the just-released study on “How Executives in Large Companies Perceive PR: A Groundbreaking Survey of over 300 Stakeholders Outside the Comms Function.”

The study found that 40% of executives don’t think PR delivers good value. It also found that business leaders have a poor understanding of PR, with 20% of them not knowing what PR stands for.

According to The Holmes Report, “Over a third of executives admitted that they did not have a good understanding of what the PR function does within their business, with the survey finding that, generally, the larger the company, the lower the understanding of PR. Respondents were also asked to name the business functions they had the strongest understanding of and only 15% of participants put communications in their top five.

This is pretty damning for an industry whose job is to help build awareness, change perceptions or change audience behaviors for their clients.

Why. Is this so?

I think there are two important factors to consider:

  1. PR people generally have been drinking the Kool Aid — They believe that the self-serving messages they craft for their clients and themselves are convincing. The truth is that most of the messages are just corporate speak that does not answer the “so what?” Question that is posed silently by their audiences. Such messages convince nobody, are not talkable and serve as a placebo for themselves and their clients.
  1. They don’t take seriously enough the study of communication as a science – therefore their techniques are lacking. PR can be a nebulous concept as it can mean so many things depending on the context. Trying to be comprehensive in your explanation is a losing proposition as its boring and complicated. A better way is to first pique the interest of the audience; then to have them draw out the details from you.

Hence when we at Maverick are confronted by the PR-industry dreaded question: “so what do you do in PR?” We enthusiastically quote to them the words that are enshrined in a plaque in our office: “We make anything complicated sound simple; anything simple sound important.”

Bang. They’re caught when you say that. They take at least half a second to turn it over in their heads and they usually smile at the novelty of the answer. Many then inquire with their eyes or words,”What do you mean.”

That’s when you know that you have their attention, hook, line and sink, and you go ahead to explain various aspects of PR, whichever are relevant to what they are likely to want to know.

If the PR industry wants to be understood it must start with an ability to encapsulate what it does into an intriguingly compact and attractive package. If it cannot do this then all that is eft for it to do is to continue to lament and whine while the world passes us by.

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