Do I hire a publicist or a PR consultant?

Before you hire a publicist, make sure you know how they differ from PR consultants because there’s a confusing overlap

There is a huge amount of market confusion surround the roles of publicity and public relations consultants but, while their services may overlap to a degree, they are generally different people, with different backgrounds who do different things. Here are some of ways you can recognise one from the other. You should think carefully about what you need before contracting with either one.

Publicists learn their trade on the job. There is no barrier to entry and no academic underpinning for what they do. By contrast, while there is similarly no barrier to entry, it’s possible to study public relations up to higher degree level – there are even MBA courses. Consequently, there are professors of public relations and thousands of alumni from these courses. 

Publicists are narrowly focussed on the media. It is steeped in their language. They talk about ‘coverage’ or ‘gaining ink’, of stunts, ‘going viral’ and ‘guerrilla’ tactics. They often measure by ‘advertising value equivalent’ and say things like ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’.

By contrast, PRs who have formally studied their trade (buyers note: this is not obligatory) will be clear from the start in explaining that the media is but one of several channels through which to communicate. They will often advise you to change what you’re doing before you even start thinking about communication. When they do, they should be channel-neutral in the advice they give you, having first listened carefully to your issues and requirements. They should be familiar with AMEC and its Measurement Maturity Mapper, and be focussed on outcomes rather than outputs from their work.

Publicists are brokers who sit between journalists seeking stories and people with stories to tell and/or sell – especially if it’s gossipy, lurid or sensational. They often take money from both sides. A publicist will stretch the truth beyond the ethical codes many PR consultants are bound by (if they are members of a trade group like the CIPR, PRSA or PRCA – many aren’t). Some publicists openly admit to lying in the pursuit of media coverage for their clients. 

Public relations people are counselling management colleagues, planning direct audience outreach campaigns, designing communications audits, communicating mergers to employees, working in strategic issues management, or a myriad of other activities. Some work hard on story-prevention, holding up a mirror to executives and acting as the organisation’s critical friend on reputation issues. An increasing number of chief communications officers have earned the right to sit around the boardroom table. That’s one place that you’ll never find a publicist.

There are plenty of publicists out there doing great work and providing valuable services to their clients. Some clearly have no idea what they’re doing. Either way, many working in PR are tired of publicity being conflated with PR. A good starting point would be for the PR industry trade bodies to be a lot more discriminating over who they grant membership to. And they could also do a great deal more to educate the market on the differences. 

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