Think PR is all about spin-doctors and women in high heels doing long lunches? Think again, says Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) Chairperson Heather Claycomb, who is on a mission to change how Kiwis perceive the profession.
Her first year in the role has come during a tumultuous time for the industry, and the world in general.
As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic and social after-effects of lockdowns are still being felt globally, while war still rages in the Ukraine.
At the local level, New Zealand has also had to contend with several recent severe weather events, destroying homes and devastating regions such as Hawke’s Bay.
Heather, who has operated her own communications consultancy in the Waikato region since 2004, says PR professionals have played a crucial role in the responses to all these various crises.
She says that she gets “a little emotional” when talking about what her colleagues in the industry have had to deal with over the past few years.
“We’ve been through the ringer as a profession. And comms is a profession that because we’re behind the scenes, we just go unnoticed.”
Heather says the “one percent of the time that things don’t quite go perfectly” is usually when comms is in the media area.
“But the 99.5 percent of the time that things go incredibly well, and you’ve been well-informed during a crisis, you know how to go get your vaccine, all these things, we kind of go unnoticed.
“I just want to celebrate what we’ve been through as a profession and for people to know you are appreciated.”
Despite all the hard work, Heather says those in PR are still hampered by myths about what the industry is about.
Her biggest pet peeve, she says, is the use of the term ‘spin-doctors’ to describe the profession.
“I think that’s come around because some people say they’re PR professionals and they aren’t committed to an ethical practice.
“It’s about maybe misleading people, which is not public relations. It’s propaganda, really. That’s not PR.”
Anther common myth about PR is that it is mostly about media relations, when only one in five PRINZ members (20 percent) do media relations frequently.
There is also a view that PR is just “beautiful women in their high heels that do long lunches”, and television carries a lot of the blame for this image, Heather says.
“If you watch Emily in Paris or all these other TV programmes, they have these really silly misperceptions of what PR is and unfortunately it just gets in people’s brains.
“I see PRINZ trying to break down those misperceptions and help people understand the breadth of what our members really do.”
Heather says it will help PR professionals do their job better if people understand the breadth of solutions they can bring to a company. And it’s not just about doing a media release or doing some social media, she says.
“It’s operating at that strategic level and advising boards and leadership teams on what are the communication risks that we’re seeing with this programme or this project that you’re about to do, and how can we communicate better with your communities?
“How can we build relationships? How can we protect your reputation as an organisation? It becomes
much more strategic rather than just these little bits of work that people think is PR.”
While some of the stereotypes are off base, the perception that the PR industry is dominated by women
More than four out of five PRINZ members (82.5 percent) are women, and Heather concedes that diversity is something the industry needs to work on.
“If you’ve been in that marketing and comms space, the majority of people working in there are women and not incredibly diverse culturally, either.
“Diversity is a key thing that we need to work on as an industry, because we are supposed to be communicating to whole communities of people, not just communicating to people like ourselves.”
Heather says it is important to attract people from different backgrounds such as law, journalism and the arts to PR, with PRINZ having a role to play in ensuring these newcomers are all operating at a professional standard.
It is fitting that PRINZ recently appointed Susanne Martin as Chief Executive, the first CEO in the organisation’s near 50-year history who does not have a communications background.
“We’ve always hired PR people that then want to lead the industry body, but she comes from quite a different background at that general manager level, very good with operations,” Heather says.
Although the pandemic may be behind us, she warns that the rapid changes PR professionals have had to contend with in the past few years are far from over, with PRINZ needing to also adapt to stay relevant to its members.
“I was thinking the other day about Chat GPT. Everybody’s talking about that, and that is going to transform our industry, but we weren’t even talking about it in November. The rate of change is so quick.”
Heather says a key role for PRINZ is celebrating success and helping practitioners learn from their peers. Entries recently closed for the PRINZ Awards in May, with more than 100 people and businesses putting their hats in the ring.
Another big focus for PRINZ is on accreditation and professional development, which needs to be constantly fine-tuned to keep members up to date on the latest trends and technology.
“We’ll always have those baseline programmes on measurement and strategy and all that sort of thing that everybody needs to know, and we can have really good uptake for those
“It’s also looking at how we teach people how to use AI ethically. Is there a course on TikTok? Because it’s just taking over the world. It’s keeping that whole programme of professional development courses that we offer relevant to membership.”
This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of NZ Marketing. Click here to subscribe.