Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Are We Major Players or Getting Played?


When Harold Burson, founding chairman of Burson-Marsteller, was asked, “If you were starting over, would you start Burson-Marsteller again?,” he jokingly replied, “No, I’d start Goldman Sachs.” All kidding aside, it begs the question – as we’re hurled into the new media tail spin, are we major players or are we being crowded out by major players?

2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the master of science in public relations degree program in the Boston University College of Communication (COM) -- the world's oldest public relations degree program. To honor this milestone, the College hosted leading minds in public relations at the Boston University Photonics Center on April 23, for a provocative discussion examining past practices and exploring the true state of public relations today.

Hosted by Professor T. Barton Carter, the panel featured renowned COM alumnae, Harold Burson, founding chairman, Burson-Marsteller; Carol Cone, chairman and founder, Cone Communications, Inc.; Paul M. Rand, president and CEO, Zócalo Group; and Dr. Otto Lerbinger, professor emeritus of Public Relations, Boston University College of Communications.

Burson provided a positive outlook on the progression and future of public relations when asked how things have changed in the field, but cautioned that there is “greater recognition than there is talent to fill those needs.”

“PR as a function will prevail; the problem is there may now be people who do not bear the PR title doing its functions.”

Rand agreed, noting that these are “challenging and confusing times for public relations” as the divide between traditional and new media channels widens.

Lerbinger, who taught public relations at Boston University for 50 years before recently retiring, reinforced his belief in public relations as a social science whose theories must continue to be practiced and applied in order for the field to develop and prosper. Ever the enthusiast, Lerbinger maintained that “communication specialists need to learn more about management, economics, and globalization and how to incorporate [those factors] into PR.”

Cone, a former student of Lerbinger, discussed the development of the social contract and social responsibility, which she defines “as an integrated business strategy, supported by policies, practices and communication that deliver social, environmental and economic value to the company and its stakeholders.” The fact that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is now a household term is proof enough that Cone’s brainchild is here to stay.

In the wake of all the changes and new media developments, the public relations field is forced to continually re-evaluate its position in the market. The medium for how we deliver messages will continue to change, but as long as there is a message to be delivered there will be public relations. After all, as Burson so prudently pointed out, “the Internet delivers messages, it does not speak for you.”

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