PR industry, looking past 'publicity,' seeks clearer role in improving business ties

Public relations specialists regard their profession today as far more than securing favorable publicity for a business or corporation. ''The old rules don't apply in an age of consumerism, new marketing approaches, and new relations with government,'' notes Dan Baer, a Los Angeles-based consultant.

In today's business environment, corporations must be sensitive to many parties: employees, the financial community, residents in areas where business facilities are. Because of this, PR agents today are advocating ''communications audits'' for their clients to determine how well they are communicating to their markets.

Advertising is an expensive tool, and the craft's new wave argues that many times good PR will bring more effective results.

Another change, notes Elise Giebel, who manages in-house PR for Smithy-Braedon, a Washington, D.C., real estate developer, is that ''shift toward in-house professionals can be seen. It is less costly, and you get a 40 -hour week.''

With the explosion in media, publicists see themselves as an unseen link between products and consumers - attempting to ''plant'' news stories, ''cultivate'' editors, and promote story concepts to journalists. Health and safety issues in the workplace as well as other major public policy questions await tough decisions in this decade. PR seems certain to play a bigger - and different - role.

''Not only publicity, but actual policy, is being formed through PR,'' says Nancy Seligor at Fleischman-Hillard in St. Louis.

Not all corporate executives appreciate the need to consider this approach. A Chicago publicist recalls that his Fortune 500 client dropped the account after a seven-year relationship.

''He didn't understand that information is flowing horizontally, and that it had to be shared,'' the publicist notes. ''His work force didn't have any idea what was happening on the top floors, and this affected morale. He never looked beyond advertising, and treated public relations as a crisis response.''

If seminars and conferences sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America are an indication, the profession is coming to grips with a need to transform itself. The audit concept has spread rapidly. Burson-Marsteller, one of the country's top three PR firms, adopted this technique, and a fourth of its clients accept the strategy.

PR-audit advocates say the service helps make long-term management objectives less fuzzy. If only instant results are sought, this defeats long-range corporate interests. PR audits, can take just a few days, are as important to companies in strong growth patterns as they are to those with less sterling records, supporters maintain.

Another shift in the field is that most businesses now accept research. The Ketchum PR group recently began computer analyses of press clippings for its clients. Structured research costs more, and is often hard to sell, yet quantifiable results can be shown. Attitudinal research - involving issue identification, pre-testing, polling, and sampling techniques - is favored by a growing number of publicists.

One trend that disturbs some veteran publicists is that advertising firms have been buying PR groups. Hill & Knowlton, Manning, Selvage & Lee, and Carl Byoir were purchased, although rumors of de-merger persist in some instances. Large service-oriented operations are viewed as likely buyers of both advertising and PR firms if present trends continue.

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