One article I came across bemoaned the fact that public relations was becoming “commoditized,” that is, being seen by corporate executives as something you can buy like paper clips, as the article said “…ordered in volume and chopped in price.” The author expressed concern that this vision of public relations as a commodity was a new and growing trend.
Growing it may be; new it is not. I worked for an advertising and public relations agency for two decades beginning in 1974 and, even then, PR (and advertising as well) was being seen as a commodity that you could buy like a carton of paper. I remember this line from an annual report of a client of ours: “[The category] Other Expenses rose due to increases in office supplies, advertising and postage.” It’s always nice to be lumped in with the paper clips and stamps.
I’ll never forget a story that my boss told me about the time he got an inquiry from a local attorney about helping that attorney’s client with a “PR problem.”
I’m just paraphrasing, but here’s the gist: the attorney calls my boss and says (“in that stentorian voice of his”, according to my boss), “Bill, I have a client I think you know. We’ve helped him with some legal issues, but I believe as a result of those issues, he has a PR problem. Can you tell me, how much would a little PR cost?”
My boss said he thought for a few seconds and replied: “Well, counselor. I’m not sure. How much does a little law cost?”
I don’t think the attorney was pleased. But as public relations professionals, neither should we be pleased when someone asks how much “a little PR” costs. Maybe we should say, “It’s on special this week; cheaper by the pound.”