You don't start with the execution (eg advertising); you start with the idea. We recall the 'Best Job in the World' campaign. Some will know that it won a PR award, though fewer recall that this was collected by an ad agency, Cummins Nitro. It's the idea that matters, not the agency or the discipline.
In passing, I did not attend either the Impress or the PRCA conference. Nor do I know Zubair Ahmed (souljaof4tune) or Martin Thomas personally (though I have read his book). But neither drawback is a barrier to the communication of (good) ideas.
But what about the relationship between ideas and public relations? What about the way we teach the subject?
Most courses teach something called Planning and Managing PR Campaigns or similar. It's usually taught as a linear process, suggesting that if you do A followed by B, then C will surely follow. In academic language, it's a modernist approach.
Critics of this approach are emerging. In Online Public Relations, Phillips and Young argued:
‘Put simply, we need to be able to plan for surprises in this fast-changing world… The idea that one can run a ‘PR campaign’ is now flawed. A ‘campaign’ once had time limits and could thus be dropped after the event, but this does not apply today.'
Another objection to the conventional approach to planning is that it privileges reason over inspiration, the plan over the idea, convergent over divergent thinking. So it's interesting to see that Martin Thomas was putting the idea at heart of a presentation focused on the importance of planning.
Once a year, I introduce public relations to first year students as 'ideas management' as it seems to me to be a better starting point than the more complex lessons about reputation, communication and relationships which are to follow.
I know how others would object to this. They would argue that public relations does not own the process of ideas generation - that's research and development's domain. They would say that ideas management leaves PR rooted in the promotional business, and doesn't reflect its full range and sophistication.
In response to the first point, neither does PR have a monopoly over communications or corporate reputation management. But it clearly has a role and the barriers and boundaries are blurring between disciplines.
To the wider point about ideas being over-promotional, at its highest and most sophisticated levels, public relations involves 'issues management' and 'public affairs'. Ideas management is suitable for the promotional side of PR, but adaptable I would argue to the world of issues management and public policy.
As a final point, it seems a good defence of why public relations belongs in higher education. We should go beyond skills training and deliver conceptual and challenging courses to curious minds.