Paul Holmes 23 Apr 2009 // 11:00PM GMT
If you’re reading this because you paid a serious amount of money for a subscription, or because you were hand-selected by our editorial team (me) on the basis of your seniority within the public relations industry, the chances are that nothing in this introductory editor’s note is going to come as a great surprise. This newsletter is written exclusively for industry leaders: smart, experienced public relations professionals with a sophisticated understanding of their role and a global perspective on their profession.
But in close to 25 years writing about public relations, I’ve found a surprising number of public relations people—some of them in very senior roles—who subscribe to an alarmingly narrow view of what this discipline is really about. And I’ve encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people outside our profession—including some who are our bosses (chairman and CEOs), our clients (marketing executives), or our peers (legal counsel)—with a decidedly different definition of public relations than the one to which I subscribe.
So it’s probably a good idea to establish from the outset exactly what this newsletter is going to be about—and just as important, what it is not going to be about. The best way to do that, I think, is to examine our definition of public relations in terms of some of the mistaken beliefs that persist within the profession and without.
1. Public relations is not a synonym for media relations
Before you snort dismissively—obviously, you know that public relations is not just publicity—think about how often you have heard a client or a senior executive within your organization ask a member of your team to “Get me some good PR” for an exciting new product or some gesture of corporate philanthropy. Chances are, he or she was really asking for some good earned media coverage.
I have nothing against earned media. I believe it is a vital tool for public relations professionals, one with some unique benefits. It can deliver a mass audience (or, depending on the media channel involved, a highly targeted one) along with a degree of credibility—the most valuable currency in brand or corporate reputation building—that other tools, such as advertising or direct mail or even sponsorship simply cannot deliver.
Indeed, the third-party endorsement of corporate messaging that good earned media coverage can deliver is, I believe more valuable today than ever before. As consumers grow increasingly resistant to other commercial messages—bombarded by hundreds of ads a day, increasingly cynical about the motivations of those who pay for them—media coverage has two critical advantages: first, the recipient has chosen to read or hear or view the message, rather than having it imposed upon him; and second, the message is being delivered by a source more credible (presumably, since it was chosen) than its original source.
So earned media coverage is a tool—a useful tool, perhaps even the most valuable tool we have at our disposal, but a tool nonetheless. But we must always remember that there are other tools, including sponsorship, direct mail, and—yes—even advertising that can be equally useful, under the right circumstances. And we must remember that all of these tools exist to serve the true purpose of public relations, which is not to earn media coverage (because no organization has as one of its key strategic objectives the desire to have nice things written about it in the press) but to build mutually beneficial relationships between the organization and those upon whom it depends for its continued success.
Finally, we must remember that sometimes, we need no tool, no medium. Media are only useful insofar as they can either amplify or enhance the credibility of the organization’s message. But the word media shares its root with the word intermediary, or middle-man, and there are times when the interposition of a middle-man either distorts the message or creates a greater distance between the source and the recipient.
The modern world offers a host of new ways—and some still perfectly effective old ways—for organizations to engage with stakeholders directly, without relying on media paid or earned.
2. Public relations is not about spin
The media—particularly political media—use the terms “public relations” and “spin” interchangeably. “Spin doctor” is now a widely accepted substitute—sometimes not even a pejorative one—for a public relations professional. But spin is not a synonym for public relations; it is, in fact, its opposite. It’s bad—in a moral and an objective sense—public relations.
Public relations is, as the words suggest, about building and managing relationships. Spin, on the other hand, is transactional. At its worst, it ignores the facts and presents a version of reality that is simply dishonest; at its best, it provides a self-serving interpretation of the facts, distorting them and misleading the intended audience in order to achieve its objective.
In any age, spin would be ethically objectionable; but in the age in which we now live—an age of almost total transparency—spin is also, in most cases, incredibly stupid.
Spin can, sadly, be effective in the political arena, in part because politics is a zero-sum game and in part because politics is transactional—the content ends when an individual places his or her vote. But spin hardly ever makes sense in the business world, because long-term good relationships are almost always more beneficial to companies than any short-term transactional gain that can be achieved by spin.
Because people will almost always find out when they have been spun. And if they come to believe that they were lied to, that facts were distorted or deliberately omitted, that their emotions were manipulated, the impact on their long-term relationship with the organization can be devastating.
The cumulative impact of spin is the destruction of the very asset—the relationship between an organization and its key stakeholders—that public relations people are charged with enhancing.
3. Public relations is not a part of the marketing mix
Every now and again, I receive a press release from a firm that has decided to change its name, dropping the words “public relations” and replacing them with the words “marketing communications.” The motivation for the change, I am invariably informed, is that the firm wanted a new name that would better reflect the breadth of its services, its desire to expand “beyond public relations.”
When a firm makes such an announcement, there are two possibilities. The first is that it is actually narrowing the range of services that it offers: rather than providing complete public relations services, it is now offering only those services that help a company market its product and services. The second—and almost certainly more likely—is that it was never offering complete public relations services to begin with, that it was in fact a media relations firm pretending to be a public relations firm.
For let us be clear: public relations is not a component of marketing, a part of the so-called marketing mix; marketing is a component of public relations.
Marketing can be broadly defined as a discipline that manages the relationship between an organization and its customers (and prospective customers). Public relations is a discipline that manages the relationship between an organization and all of its key stakeholders: its shareholders, its employees, the communities in which it operates, and—yes—its consumers. It does not artificially elevate the importance of one stakeholder group over all the others, and it understands that there may be times when the needs of another group (employees perhaps) should take precedence over those of consumers.
Confusion arises—and public relations fails to achieve its rightful place in the organizational hierarchy—because too many practitioners have fallen into the habit of using public relations as a synonym for media relations, a mistake marketers are, not surprisingly, happy to encourage, since it has allowed them—in too many cases—to insert themselves between the public relations department and the C-suite.
4. Public relations is not (all) about communication
If public relations consultancies have diminished themselves by talking about PR’s role in the marketing mix, their counterparts inside corporations and other institutions have diminished their roles by allowing public relations to be redefined and renamed as “corporate communications.”
First, a cynic might observe that most corporate communications departments only do half the job their name suggests. Communication is not a synonym for talking—something most communications departments are good at; it also involves listening—and many corporate communications departments spend far too little time listening. To truly communicate with stakeholders, an organization needs to engage with them.
But even when corporate communications departments really do engage and really do listen, they are only doing half the job of a public relations counselor, and usually not the most important half.
If public relations really is about managing relationships, we need to make it clear that relationships—between people and organizations, just as between people and their family, friends, and neighbors—are determined far less by words than by actions. In other words, an organization’s behavior will have far greater impact on the quality of its relationships than any amount of communication, and when forced to choose between believing even the most soothing words (“we’re listening”) and harmful actions, most people will make their judgment based on the actions.
So if public relations people are to be responsible for the relationships between an organization and its critical stakeholders, they must be able to influence not only how it communicates, but also how it behaves. They must be able to influence policy. Communication is not a policy level function, but public relations—the management of relationships—is.
Indeed, I believe that every time an organization makes a policy decision, it must consider the implications across four broad dimensions: it must consider the operational implications, the financial implications, the legal implications, and—no less important—the implications for the relationship between the organization and those upon whose support it depends.
Most organizations already have a chief operations officer, a chief financial officer, and a chief legal officer; they need a chief public relations officer, functioning at the same level.
5. Public relations is not about popularity
Finally, a public relations is not about trying to make everybody like you. Universal popularity is not a meaningful—or attainable—objective.
Public relations is about understanding what your organization stands for, what its core values are, and then acting and communicating with those values in mind, constantly and consistently. If those values have any meaning at all—if they amount to more than warm and fuzzy generalities—there will be times when others hold different values. A publishing company that believes in the freedom of information may clash with those who would prefer to see certain works censored. A corporation that provides equal benefits to all its employees may find itself in conflict those who oppose providing health coverage to homosexual couples.
An approach that monitors shifts in public opinion and constantly adjusts the company’s position on controversial issues to match the public mood won’t satisfy anyone. Nor will an approach based upon surrender to whatever group of stakeholders makes the loudest noise, threatens the biggest boycott, or generates the most headlines.
To build solid, long-term relationships based on mutual respect, an organization needs to have strong core values, and use those values to guide its actions and its behavior. The public relations professional should be the guardian of and chief advocate within the company for those values. If he or she is successful in that role, he or she will also be successful in building the kind of sustainable relationships the organization needs.
Of course, building those relationships is not an end in itself; public relations also involves leveraging them for the organization’s benefit. Leveraging them does not mean exploiting them, of course. It means understanding when the organization’s interest and those its stakeholders are aligned, and activating those stakeholders to act as allies and advocates for the organization’s positions. When stakeholders—particularly employees, consumers and local communities—come to a company’s defense, senior management will understand the true value of relationships and of public relations.
It should be clear by now that this publications has a vision of public relations that is, shall we say, idealized. In more than 20 years of writing about the public relations profession, I don’t believe I have ever come across an organization that practiced the discipline in quite the way that it is described in this article. But one of the great things about being a journalist rather than a practitioners is that one can focus on the world—or in this case the business—as it should be rather than as it is.
I believe that public relations remains the most under-utilized discipline in the corporate world, that public relations—too often viewed as mere publicity, undermined by spin, regarded as subsidiary to marketing, reduced to just communication, focused on popularity—is used by most organizations to only a fraction of its ability to contribute.
I believe that public relations—understood properly and used to its full potential—has the ability to improve the performance of the most powerful institutions in our world, corporations that create enormous wealth and wield enormous power, by bringing their behavior into line with the expectations of the society in which they operate. And I believe that if it can accomplish that, public relations will be seen not only as an essential discipline, but also as a noble one.