I read with interest this morning that the City of Grand Rapids is looking to hire a communications director, who would be charged according to the MLive article with being a "spokesperson, connecting to citizens, and help craft a long-term public relations strategy."
I think it does make sense for a city the size of Grand Rapids to have a full-time public relations professional aboard. (It may have relied on various PR firms for services in the past, but an in-house practitioner has advantages). I also am happy the term public relations is actually used, as well as the notion that there needs to be a long-term strategy and not just idle "getting the word out."
I do hope, however, that public relations is properly understood, and that the eventual hire has an actual degree and experience in public relations. I am a former journalist myself, but I have been disappointed to see so many institutions hire people for top PR positions who have little to no understanding of what PR actually is. Good writing and a command of the Associated Press (AP) style only get you so far.
Public attitudes about public relations, according to academic research, show that people either (my words here) minimize of demonize the profession. They minimize it by seeing it as merely a spokesperson or media relations job. This is considering WHAT PR people do. They demonize it by thinking all PR people intentionally "spin" or deceive. This is considering HOW PR people do their jobs.
What management thinks PR is, called the dominant coalition schema or worldview, affects how PR is practiced. When management doesn't have a good understanding of PR, they hire people who don't know PR, or they hire people who do understand PR and are quickly frustrated by not being able to practice it to full potential.
I would hope that the "demonizing" perspective is not one held by city leaders. And while there is no doubt that some PR people have jobs focused on media relations, I would hope that city leaders see PR as more than that, and that the "long-term public relations strategy" involves more than a media strategy.
Academics have traditionally broken down PR practice into four models of observed practice. Briefly, one is press agentry/publicity, in which practitioners seek media attention sometimes with dubious methods. The public information model is characterized as more straightforward and using various tactics, not just news media. But it is still limited to one-way communication. (This is a common form of practice in government contexts because of the obligation to communicate with citizens and taxpayers; professionals are often called PIOs--public information officers). The last two models are two-way asymmetric and two-way symmetric. Both are two-way, which means more listening to publics and talking with them, not just to them. Asymmetric communication, though, involves listening primarily to meet the organization's objectives and not allowing the public to initiate conversation. This may make sense in some situations, such as health campaigns. Symmetrical communication means either party can initiate dialogue, and sometimes the organization changes its actions to respond to public concern. Academics and advanced professionals consider this form of PR the most ethical and advanced.
That last paragraph is a lot. But it only scratches the surface of knowledge about what PR is and should be. Seasoned PR professionals know more than communications tactics, but understand research, public segmentation, action planning, measurable objectives, theory-based strategies, persuasion, evaluative methods, and more.
It will be best for city leaders, citizens, other publics and the PR profession if the eventual communications director has a deep grasp of PR and participates in making city decisions, not just communicating them. The city will get the attention it deserves, citizens will feel well served, and PR will not be demonized or minimized, but seen appropriately for its positive role in society.