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PR sages see growth at cost of identity.

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. Thirty years or so ago it was called product publicity and somewhat looked down on as a vocational function of recycled reporters. Pat Jackson thinks such impediments to sales success as environmental concerns, in which sophisticated public relations is needed to clear the path, will contribute substantially to the differentiation between the two fields.

We agree with his long-term view but, at this writing, the Donald vs. Ivana Trump marital contretemps was accorded editorial space in the NY Times no less, equal to Gorbechev's activities. In what is sure to send the Cassandras to the wailing wall, it was billed (in the New York Times) as a battle of public relations titans. A story described by its arts critic: whose inconsequentiality is equalled only by its irresistibility."

The Velvet Glove?

The feminization of the business, now some 70 percent of all practitioners are women, is a non-issue to the Fellows. Center summarized the prevailing view . ..... whether the function does promotion ... or ... policy is not a male or female matter. It will depend on the character, values and styles of the individual organizations." The current inequities in salary ranges will self-adjust, many stated. Wylie thinks women may have perfected such skills as listening and analyzing better than men, so he and others feel they bring another dimension to the field.

Ethics: Personal or Acquired?

Ethics is seen as essentially a personal matter. Public relations cannot piously aspire to a higher standard than society itself but it can associate with the best. The PRSA code of conduct is of only minimal effectiveness, they felt because its application and enforcement have been timid. Center and Betsy Ann Plank wrote for the majority when they noted that to be truly effective, ethical standards must be firmly-and publicly-associated with the PR profession so management knows up-front (as they do with lawyers) the ethical criteria a qualified public relations practitioner brings to the assignment. And, PR people must have the courage to avoid any assignment, or client, that is clearly in violation of basic standards. Hard to do if you're counsel; harder to do if you are a corporate staff member, but one must weigh the long-term vs. the short-term benefits.

There is a role, and a necessity, the Fellows believe, for public relations-and, if not PR, then, perhaps the lawyers, MBAs or some other discipline-to address the subjective issues facing top management increasingly these days. On the line is not only their relevance but the integrity, and the credibility, of the chief executive and the corporation itself. There was unanimity that there are a limited number of professionals capable of such intellectual exercise.

Harold Burson believes the only realistic solution is to train the best and the brightest internally.

Talking Does Not Cook Rice

In this context, George Hammond hit the highest philosophical note when he thoughtfully traced PR's origins to the US Federalist Papers which addressed the "why" of the concept of a new nation and sold it persuasively to the public. Hammond used this analogy to remind all that counseling is not an end unto itself. The skill and ability to translate counsel to action is critical. The best advice is suspect and discounted if the implementation is faulty, he added.

It also touches on a common complaint of the Fellows, the inability to write by so many these days. Not publicity copy but the thoughtful, well-structured expository statements that excel in organization, fluency, specificity and grammar. Writing skill is the backbone of effective speeches, memoranda, briefs, White Papers and annual reports, among others. Visual images notwithstanding, the lasting impressions are made by the facile use of written language. Deficiency in writing skills is, of course, not unique to PR.

And technology will not be a panacea. As Howard Chase notes, it is the literacy of the communicator not the electronics that makes the difference. While communication technology has given PR practitioners almost instant reach around the world we, thus far, says Wylie, have simply used it to do the same things, although more conveniently and cost effectively.

It's always open season on the public relations sequences and curricula taught at hundreds of colleges and universities, and the Fellows added their opinions. They agreed that when the curricula embraced more than communication technology and included internships and practicums with business courses, the results were good. Good doses of liberal arts was an almost unanimous choice, with emphasis on such disciplines as social psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology and political science.

A Final Word...

To the writer this has been a bittersweet exercise. The straightforward manner by which the Fellows ad, dressed the issues, and the scope and sweep of their reasoning, demonstrated again why they'd each been chosen by their peers for PRSA's highest accolade, the Gold Anvil. The down side is the comparison of their realism and intellect with today's rhetoric and grandiloquent forecasts of the future of public relations. But as poet james Russell Lowell wrote, "The wisest can ask no more of Fate than to be safe from the many and honored by the few."
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators: 1970 - 1990: Section 2: Coming of Age; public relations
Author:Budd, John F., Jr.
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:You have to know so much to write so little.
Next Article:Employee communication in the '90s: great(er) expectations.

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