Why public relations gets no respect

November 15, 2012, 8:27 PM UTC

There’s no Mad Men for PR. But social media may change that.

FORTUNE — Public relations is not taken seriously as a function of business or as a profession. US companies spend $150 billion annually on advertising and only $5 billion on public relations, according to eMarketer and PRSA respectively. Advertising professionals make up to 75% more than their PR counterparts, as calculated from PayScale data. While virtually all MBA programs offer courses in advertising, the Associated Press reported only 20% offer a course in public relations. In popular culture ad execs are immortalized with powerful characters like Mad Men’s Don Draper who positions Kodak’s slide projector for success in part by singlehandedly christening it the “Carousel”, while PR execs are portrayed by characters like Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones who seem to do nothing but throw parties for a living.

Yet anyone who pays attention to how decisions are influenced knows that public relations is tremendously important.

No one understood this better than Steve Jobs who was as personally involved in public relations as he was in product design. The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg recounted that “within days of [Jobs’s] return [as CEO of Apple], in 1997, he began calling my house, on Sunday nights, for four or five straight weekends.” Mossberg went on that Jobs’ Sunday calls “turned into marathon, 90-minute, wide-ranging, off-the-record discussions”.

Jobs’s attention wasn’t limited to the Wall Street Journal. Former Gizmodo writer Brian Lam Walter told similar stories of personal emails and calls with Jobs, though that came to an end after Gizmodo controversially bought a missing iPhone 4 prototype.

Walter Isaacson explained in his biography that “The television ad and the frenzy of press preview stories were the first two components in what would become the Steve Jobs playbook for making the introduction of a new product seem like an epochal moment in world history.”

Public relations is only becoming more important. Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (its cofounder Marc Andreessen of Netscape fame ranked second on the 2012 Forbes Midas List) recently named PR executive Margit Wennmachers as a full partner, which was practically unheard of in the venture industry.

If public relations is important, why isn’t it taken seriously?

Having talked with many CEOs, marketing executives and journalists, these are the reasons I hear for why PR has not been a business priority:

PR’s not trackable. It’s nice to get covered, but traditionally there’s no way to know how that coverage effected the bottom line. It’s even more challenging to track how the amount of money spent on PR effects the amount and reach of coverage.

The profession has a bad reputation with journalists. With the invention of email it became
terribly easy
to spam journalists with irrelevant messages. This was enabled by software designed to make it easy to mass email journalists and lazy PRs who took advantage of it, which deeply hurt the profession’s reputation.

You can’t scale PR. When something works in business you want to scale it as much as possible. For example, if a Google AdWords campaign is working the biggest question a businessperson has is how much money they can throw at it before it stops being effective. It’s unclear how to leverage a PR success.

There’s no use putting lipstick on a pig. Arthur W. Page (1883-1960), the first PR man to serve on a the board of directors of a major public company, offered the principle “Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.” All too often the PR department’s only been able to influence the 10 percent part.

Here’s why PR has the opportunity to move center stage in the social media age:

Effects of PR can now be measured to a greater extent than ever before in history. Reporting on the effectiveness of a press mention used to be limited to clipping it from a newspaper and showing the clip to the boss. Even in the first era of the web a publisher would never share how many pageviews an article received. Now anyone can track for free how many times an article is being shared on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter for free. More importantly, due the the public nature of social profiles, you can track who is sharing press you’ve received and if they’re taking action because of it.

Social media can drive more human communications. As I wrote about in my Fortune column on
Slow PR
, social media offers hope for building better relationships between PRs and the people they need to work with. Rather than blindly pitching thousands of people hoping for a 1% response rate, public relations pros can deeply research and build strong relationships with the journalists most likely to be interested in the companies they represent. This kind of interaction is only recently possible due to the very high percentage of journalists on social media, which the company I cofounded
Muck Rack
has pegged at well over 10,000 journalists.

You can now scale PR to influencers and by promoting articles. In a way Steve Jobs had it easy when he retuned to Apple in 1997. Jobs only needed to convince a small handful of journalists that Apple was worth paying attention to again to get his message out. In today’s fragmented media world, a sidelined company would need to reach out to dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of journalists, bloggers and influencers to tell such a story. The number of people a company needs to interact with will continue to increase overtime, and the public relations skill set is best suited to handle the additional relationships.

PR departments are starting to be tasked with creating branded content and spending significant amounts of money on platforms that increase distribution for content such as Facebook’s Promoted Posts, Twitter’s Promoted Tweets and Outbrain’s Amplify.

Public relations now has meaningful data to influence big decisions. There’s still no use in putting lipstick on a pig, but PR departments can help a company choose what kind of animal it becomes. There was a time when customer feedback came only through focus groups, surveys and customer support calls. It now floods in through social media, which is tracked primarily by PR departments. A PR executive with a strong command of this data will be able to influence high level decisions on product, market positioning and more.

The time has finally come for public relations to measure its results, build strong relationships, scale its efforts and demand big budgets. Most of the latest innovations in media — social media — play to the strengths of public relations rather than advertising. If the industry plays its cards right, the public relations department could command as much respect and budget as the advertising department.

With a little luck, maybe there will even be a hit TV show about a PR pro.

Gregory Galant‘s the CEO of Muck Rack, the social network for journalists and companies in the news. He’s also the cocreator of the Shorty Awards which honors the best of social media. Galant advises several startups and is a mentor in the TechStars startup accelerator. Follow him on Twitter.