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What Should Public Relations Be?

There is a growing conversation within the public relations profession about how to best define PR. Is it putting the “public” or the “relations” back in public relations? Either way, there seems to be some kind of disconnect, and according the proponents of each philosophy believe that social media is both the disrupting agent and the cure.

However, our profession has two primary job objectives, and if we fulfill these objectives, we are successful – using (or blaming) social media takes the straw-man approach. Putting the public and the relations back are a result of the core principles that make up PR: build perception and be a connector.

Build perception
Companies hire us because they want to exude a particular image (mostly always manufactured – either by the company’s actions or beliefs, or by the products or services they provide). They build and try to sustain this image through the broad silos of marketing, advertising and public relations, all ideally in synch with the company message. Our main role is to build perception.

In messaging sessions, we carefully cultivate the story that our client needs to grow their business. We work with advertising companies to create the right image, whether it’s pictorial (like a logo or commercial) or content (speeches, etc). We work with marketing firms to convert the brand into sales. Basically, we help consumers and influencers fall in love with a brand, a company, a product.

We help spread the word through various tactics and measure our success through different metrics – eyeballs, impressions, sales – depending on the directive. However, the strategy is always the same: build a positive perception of who we are.

Every time we get a client quoted or profiled in the media or on a blog, or every time our client speaks at a conference or event, we should be asking ourselves, how do these tactics support this communications strategy? This appears to be the question missing from the debate that’s occurring in our profession. It doesn’t matter if you put the public or the relations back into PR, as they are incidental to the broader, more lasting picture. The conversation too often focuses on the tactics – media relations, executive visibility, thought leadership, etc. We need to put the strategy back in communications plans.

Be a connector
The second job we have is to connect our clients to the right people. Sometimes it’s a journalist; sometimes it’s an industry influencer. For example, I have a client who is a partner at a large law firm. While we have a solid media relations campaign, we’re also exploring other ways of getting him in front of the right audiences. We’ve taken him to events and have connected him with other clients, knowing that a relationship is mutually beneficial to both parties.

There is a common adage in the industry that the higher levels at an agency are the ones who make the decisions and interact with the client at the strategic level, while the underlings interact with the client at the tactical level…the day to day. This is a huge issue for me. How can those who are in the lower levels see why they’re doing what they do? If an AE is performing the TPS Report of PR (media monitoring) but doesn’t know why, how is that beneficial to the client?

If we were to incorporate young PR professionals into the strategy sessions at the higher levels, they may a) enjoy their job more because they can see the bigger picture and b) learn how important their job can be to the success of their client.

Some other thoughts
Our profession has become a revolving door because there are many firms who ignore the bigger picture and go after the paycheck. But then the client leaves after 3 or 6 months and never has the chance to build a strategic communications plan to coincide with its overall business plan.

And yes, there are plenty of great firms who do this, and they recognize that their main directive is to serve as counselor, not glorified telemarketer selling vapor. That said, there are too many bottom-feeders who are more eager to promote their work than that of their clients.

Communications people should not be seen. We do our jobs the best when no one knows we’re doing it. We best serve our client when we’re in the background, being an advisor. If we do our job correctly, we won’t be known but our clients will.

How do you see the role of PR?

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.


One thought on “What Should Public Relations Be?

  1. Interesting post Josh. I had a few thoughts about your first pillar or characteristic of PR. I’m not sure that I agree it is the job of the PR person or team to “build perception.” Whether our clients have advertised or gone through the messaging brainstorm, the perceptions of the company already exist. We can try to influence, change or educate perceptions, but they have already been built. I think you are spot on w/ the connections – we work in a relational business, and we have to support our clients in cultivating those relationships.Thanks! @nlawhead

    Posted by Nick Lawhead | June 2, 2009, 6:20 pm

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