Why we should stop saying ‘nobody dies in PR’

PR might not be brain surgery, but it has the power to alter lives. That’s why some PR pros take their work so seriously—and why communicators should demand perfection.

Every few months I find myself in a meeting where someone cavalierly chimes in on a challenge we’re working to tackle with the statement “it’s PR, not ER.”

Usually, this comment is followed by the rote disclaimer that we’re in the communications field and shouldn’t take what we’re doing too seriously, as we are not saving lives. Admittedly, it always gets me fired up.

I care deeply about the power of PR. We’re not in an operating room making life-saving patient decisions, but we are making calculated moves for clients that have life-altering potential. In a world where hunger, poverty, discrimination and countless disparities exist, what we do absolutely matters.

What we do is far greater than we often acknowledge or realize. Our influence through strategic communications programs can be massive. We as brand champions better be sure we craft and deploy the right messages.

Some of what we do is to drive brands or promote products and services, but other parts tackle humanitarian issues of global proportions that require us to advocate for causes that impact world citizens and the environment.

To say that PR doesn’t help impact lives is simply not true.

A look at the 2019 Cannes Lions PR winners shows winning ideas and activations for kids with disabilities, disadvantaged students in India, and women and girls who face continual stigmas. The TBWA/Paris’ “Harmless Gun” campaign won gold for taking on the dangers of 3D printed guns for client Dagoma. Preventing functional weapons from being printed is a matter of life and death. Ketchum, the PR agency behind “Viva la Vulva,” put an often-hidden piece of the female anatomy in the spotlight. The critically acclaimed effort was universally celebrated and garnered a Titanium Lion.

We use our own tools of the trade to execute programs with precision and have our own monitoring systems to ensure stability. There’s no denying that the programs implemented by government agencies, nonprofits and brands absolutely can and do save lives.

Consumers actually feel an organization’s purpose. Porter Novelli’s recent Biometric Study illustrates that purpose ignites physical and emotional responses—proof that PR efforts around social good and purpose-led initiatives fundamentally affect target audiences.


Porter Novelli has been involved with countless campaigns that have positively impacted the physical and mental well-being of diverse constituencies. Our work with the “Take Charge. Take the Test” initiative, for instance, empowered African American women to own the conversation around their health and get tested for HIV/AIDS. The power of PR was clearly on display before Novelli teamed up with Street Grace and BBDO to mobilize communities to fight activation.

PR efforts have turned moments into movements. The simple task of pouring a bucket of ice water on your head, capturing the scene on video, and challenging others to do the same raised more than $220 million for the ALS Association.

How’s that for “not ER”?

Campaigns like P&G’s “The Talk” earned thousands of media hits and elevated the commercial that depicted the challenges parents of color face in trying to keep their children safe from police officers who are sworn to protect them.

The spot ran once. It was PR that kept it trending in the news, expanded its reach, and helped shine light on a critical conversation in our country and across the world.

PR has the potential to be life-altering. Of course, consumers and advocacy groups can and will spot disingenuous campaigns. The repercussions of brands trying to jump on the purpose bandwagon for profit can negatively impact performance and perception in the marketplace.

Brand purpose was at the center of leading conversations along La Croisette in Cannes, yet some observers found it hypocritical when members of an environmental activist group protested at a Facebook event and were arrested.

Brands need to authentically find, live and share their purpose or consumers will call their bluff. PR pros who guide marketers down purposeful paths must ensure that messages and actions are consistent. That’s exactly why we need to take ourselves seriously and stop comments like “nobody dies in PR.” Self-deprecating statements set our profession back.

The PR industry uniquely draws awareness to where awareness is needed, educates consumers on issues that need attention, raises millions of dollars, and changes behavior. If

PR pros want a seat at C-suite tables, we need to stop belittling our expertise and recognize the power of the craft.

PR, when done well and done right, can be a (life-altering) global force for good.

Brad MacAfee is the CEO of Porter Novelli.

(Image via)


One Response to “Why we should stop saying ‘nobody dies in PR’”

    Lisa Carey says:

    I’ve worked in travel PR for conswrvatio brands for 20 years, and we’ve helped out the spotlight in vital wildlife conservation projects to raise awareness and finding for example rhino relocations to combat poaching; anti-poaching stories; comnunity upliftment stories about chefs chosen from rural villages; and more recently the crisis facing wild lions, brought to the fire by Disney and Lion Recovery Fund. PR tells all these stories in the leading publications so that we can make a difference. So in this case PR can change peoples lives and try save some species from extinction.
    Telling positive stories about ecotourism and safaris with a purpose also ensures travellers choose operators that give back as part of their business model.

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