The almost already forgotten Bell-Pottinger affair put into sharp relief the different disciplines of communications and campaigning work which are erroneously collected together and described as “Public Relations.”
Most people outside PR, of a certain age, will no doubt see it as either something like the world of fluffy publicists portrayed in “Absolutely Fabulous” and “Twenty Twelve” or the dark arts world of political spin best captured in “Absolute Power” and “The Thick of It.”
These comedic portrayals are caricatures of course.
But they have not strayed too far from the reality in my experience of working in the related worlds of corporate communications and political campaigning over the past 40 years. I can recognise most if not all of the characters portrayed and could give each character a real-life name.
These fictions are not bad ways to think about what I see as the seemingly un-crossable divide between those two areas of PR work, and provide an indication that maybe they should be re-divided where they have been so artificially and clumsily merged.
I see these as two quite different trades (I refuse to call anything in PR a “profession”, to do so is risible. I separate PR work into two groupings – related disciplines sitting under the same umbrella.
First there is consumer PR which directly supports marketing and sales.
In one way or another this area of work is concerned with publicity and promotions. Whether the product is fashion, food or a celebrity, the objective is to sell something.
I would also include B2B communications and political campaigning under this umbrella as the techniques are similar and the objectives are the same, to sell something or somebody.
This area includes community and sports sponsorship as a way to support and embolden branding activity, but this can also be a cross-over area as corporate entertainment afforded by sponsorships bolsters the influencing of government, political, investor and other corporate decision-makers.
This is the Ab Fab end of PR.
Second there is issues and cause related campaigning and crisis avoidance and management work.
Ths work is not concerned with selling a product or person, but in a loose sense of the word “sell” could be said to be about selling ideas. I would also include Investor Relations and Public Affairs work under this umbrella.
This area of work is about buying (or earning) a “license to operate” by winning third-party endorsement to influence investment decision-makers, and removing or reducing barriers to that license through legislation and regulation.
There are of course some cross-over areas here because issues and crisis management may directly or indirectly support, or save, sales. But the primary objective is always concerned with shareholders and investors as the ‘public’ of most concern. Consumers are secondary.
This area includes internal communication because employees, partners, franchisees, suppliers are also secondary audiences and channels to support the productivity and profitability of the business beyond , but often including, sales.
This is the “Absolute Power” end of PR.
These are obviously crude and imperfect divisions, but they serve to illustrate how not all PR is PR, and as diffierent discioplines they should be worked and treated differently.
My guess would be that the kind of work that Bell-Pottinger specialised in and were probably the best around, will migrate to non-PR organisations. There are already unseen agencies who lurk in the shadow rather than hog the spotlight and if I were a former client of Bell-Pottinger (actually I am a former client of Bell-Pottinger) I would seek out those consultants, the ones who are very Ab Power and not Ab Fab at all.
If those consultants are good at what they do, we will never know who they are.