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What is Public Relations?

When I meet people and we start discussing our occupations, I always find it both fun and infuriating to describe what I do. I am called various names — flack, spinster, spin-meister — all of which have negative connotations. There is a general perception in the corporate world that public relations brings nothing to the table, that it is a spandrel, a natural yet pointless byproduct coming from the ‘tested’ sector of advertising. Ironic since we, in this unsophisticated communications profession, are supposedly masters of message.

The image problem we face is a result of two major factors; PR firms who care more about a buck than about its clients and a society who believes that public relations is a necessary evil and not the vehicle to provide a valuable service.

PR has become diluted in the past 20 years because of the proliferation of V.C-funded start-ups. With new companies comes new prey for those PR firms who flash the shiny coin and parade around with smoke and mirrors. Here’s how a typical new business pitch from a salivating PR firm goes:

PR firm: We will get you media hits. We will get you in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and any other publication you want. We will set up a media tour for you to have desk-side briefings with influential journalists. We will also be your mouthpiece and serve as your partner.

Start-up: That sounds great. Does this help our business?

PR firm: Of course it does. 4 million people read the New York Times. It will be great. Trust us.

There are two main issues with this approach: the firm doesn’t present itself as a strategic partner, only the means to an end; and the firm sets expectations incredibly high. But, since the V.C.-funded company is playing with other people’s money, they agree to spend 15K a month. After three months they decide to fire the agency. Why? Because not only did the agency fall flat on its promise of high-valued media exposure, it didn’t serve as a partner. It only concerned itself about media relations and neglected all the other aspects of a communications platform.

Corporations must understand that public relations is not a negative, that the fundamental purpose of public relations is to provide messages and extol those messages to the proper audiences through different vehicles — media, speeches, internal documents, etc. When choosing a PR agency you need to look at how they will help your overall business objectives. Will this initiative drive sales? Will these messages help build our brand? Unfortunately, many of today’s PR firms have been taken over by people who don’t care about their client. And this philosophy has led to the perception that PR is a reactive tool in the communications tool-box.

Take for example last night’s brew-ha-ha with Motrin. The marketing and advertising folk made a boo-boo (which is another story altogether) and the PR teams will clean it up. But the underlying issue here is that the PR team probably had no role in the creating of these messages because they are seen as a line of defense – and not positive creators of message. And when the mainstream media picks up on this social media case-study, odds are we’ll hear the messages by Motrin’s PR people.

This leads to the second reason why PR is suffering a bad rap at the moment: the public only hears about PR when something goes wrong. Know why that is? Because it’s reactionary. The public doesn’t hear about how a public affairs team or public relations team is helping, just how it’s putting a positive light on what could be a negative situation.

Additionally, public relations must be defined in a new context — that of a two-way conversation between consumer and company. The public has more of a say in how businesses are run today because they can influence change through the social sphere. No longer do top-down dicta act as the sole influence of a brand’s perception; blogs and other social media tools can harness this power in a more tangible way. Public Relations firms must work together with marketing and advertising to not just create the message, but participate in the conversation that key audiences are clamoring for.

The public relations profession is at a crossroads. Choose one way (looking after yourself instead of the interest of the client) and we lose all credibility of the excellent (and needed) services we provide. Choose another (understand that PR is not just about media relations and should provide strategic value) and have partnerships that last a long time.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


2 thoughts on “What is Public Relations?

  1. Hey Josh,Came across you on twitter and have been reading your blog today. Was hoping you might consider writing a review of my site(http://iList.com). I thought you might find it interesting given what I’ve read. We’re trying to get if off the ground and can use all the help me can get.

    Posted by Brad Seraphin | December 2, 2008, 2:02 am
  2. Interesting. I don’t think the word “Relations” as a stand alone word has been polluted yet. Has it?Thinking along the lines of “relations:” I like the definition of “brand” that likens it to a “’relationship,’ similar to one you have with a ‘friend.’” If a firm can help guide a brand in how it can best build genuine and beneficial two-way relationships (and avoid relationship blunders) with its many audiences, could that be valuable? Audiences inclusive of, but not limited to, media.In my work, I started out in Public Relations. Then Community Relations, Employee Relations, Investor Relations and eventually Company Branding, Corporate Marketing, and Employment Branding were added to my toolkit. Throughout, I believe I’ve helped build and grow, close, mutually beneficial relationships between my company and the given audiences. These relationships are what in turn generate the true business value.Who wants a friend for just a day? (A single WSJ hit.) When a friendship can last a life time, the rewards never end.Just some thoughts. Maybe there is a gem in there, maybe not.From someone who cares,Polly PearsonVP Employment Brand and Strategy EngagementEMC Corp

    Posted by Polly Pearson | March 11, 2009, 9:49 pm

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