What is Public Relations?

Public relations affects almost all who have contact with other human beings. All of us, in one way or another, practice public relations daily. For an organization, every phone call, every letter, every face-to-face encounter is a public relations event. How is it handled, effected, concluded is Strategic Communications, which Stern And Company practices as a superset which comprises corporate communications, crisis communications, financial or investor relations, change or employee communications and marketing communications, as well as public affairs and community relations.

For purposes of clarity, we will refer to Public Relations in this essay.

To be sure, public relations is not a profession like law, accounting, and medicine, in which practitioners are trained, licensed, and supervised. Nothing prevents someone with little or no formal training from hanging out a shingle as a public relations specialist.

Over the past two decades, public relations has steadily built its reputation, increased its prominence, and earned respect across a wide span of society. As today’s institutions strive to understand more clearly the forces of change, adapt their activities to new pressures and aspirations, and listen and communicate more effectively, public relations becomes more impor¬≠tant. Institutions rely on their practitioners to help win public support and trust, without which they will be rendered powerless.

Thousands of practitioners are former newspaper and broadcast reporters, magazine writers, journalism school graduates, advertising agency alumni, and lawyers. Increasingly, practitioners are graduates of college public relations courses. In an attempt to understand what public relations is and what it can and cannot accomplish, here are a few approaches toward a definition.

First, professional public relations is not the $100 million basketball center glad-handing of local businessmen at the cigar company’s annual luncheon or the sultry screen actress seductively caressing the after-shave lotion to the clicks of photographers’ shutters. Yet all of these metaphors and worse have, all too frequently, been mistaken from the practice of strategic public relations by many local companies and so-called “PR agencies.”

As one publication once said, and only slightly tongue-in-cheek, “Ex-convicts, child molesters, political fixers, call girls and their procurers, gambling casino bouncers, and a variety of glad-handing front men have been described as ‘public relations counselors’.”

Although most organizations have, by their existence, some kind of public relations, few enjoy strategic communications, as Stern And Company terms its practice and that is the essence of this essay.

Where marketing and sales have as their primary objective selling an organization’s products, strategic attempts to communicate the organization itself. Central to its concern is the public interest.

Advertising also generally aims to sell products through paid means. Strategic Communications, on the other hand, cannot be bought; it must be earned. The credibility derived from sound public relations work far exceeds that gained through paid advertising.

Product publicity, although one aspect of traditional public relations, is more closely aligned with advertising. In general, the elements of the marketing mix-advertising, product promotion, sales, publicity, and the like-may be but a small part of public relations. Organizations in general and business enterprises in particular face a large class of problems which cannot be solved by the thinking, policies, and procedures of marketing. The maximum contribution of public relations is at the chief executive’s elbow, projecting the effects upon the organizations key publics of its business approach and strategy; it is generally not part of the marketing mix, except to vet the marketing and advertising approach.

Public relations is a management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communications, understanding, acceptance, and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.

Strategic Communications, often called “Public Relations” is the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organization leaders, and implementing planned programs of action which will serve both the organization’, and the public’s interest. It’s the function which evaluates public attitudes,¬† identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organization, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.

This approach recognizes three realities of today’s increasingly democratic, globally interdependent social system: (1) the economic and social stability of an organization depends greatly on public opinion, (2) all people have the right to information that will affect their lives, and (3) unless communication achieves continuous, accurate feedback, the organization won’t accurately be able to assess how it is viewed by its publics and to adjust its actions appropriately.

Public relations practitioners are basically interpreters. On the one hand, they must interpret the philosophies, policies, programs, and practices of their management to the public; on the other hand, they must translate the attitudes of the public to their management.

To accomplish these tasks accurately and truthfully, practitioners must gain attention, understanding, acceptance, and, ultimately, action from target publics. But first they have to know what management is thinking. Good public relations can’t be practiced in a vacuum. No matter what the size of the organization, a public relations department is only as good as its access to management.

The flip side of the coin is interpreting the public to management. Simply stated, this task means finding out what the public really thinks about the firm and letting management know. Regrettably, corporate history is filled with examples of public relations departments failing to anticipate the true sentiments of the public.

Practitioners must communicate with many different publics – not just the general public – each having its own special needs and requiring different types of communications Often, the lines that divide these publics are thin, and the potential overlap is significant. Therefore, priorities, according to organizational needs, must always be reconciled.

Technological change, in particular, has brought greater interdependence to people and organizations, and there is growing concern in organization today about managing extensive webs of interrelationships. Indeed, managers have become interrelationship conscious.

Internally, managers must deal directly with various levels of subordinates, as well as with cross-relationships that arise when subordinate interact with one another. Externally, managers must deal with a system that includes government regulatory agencies, labor unions, subcontractors, consumer groups, and many other independent-but often related organizations. The public relations challenge in all of this is to manage effectively the communications between managers and the various public with whom they interrelate.

Publics can also be classified into several overlapping categories:

  • Internal and external: Internal publics are inside the organization supervisors, clerks, managers, stockholders, and the board of directors. External publics are those not directly connected with the organization the press, government, educators, customers, the community, a suppliers.
  • Traditional and future employees and current customers are traditional publics; students and potential customers are future ones. No organization can afford to become complacent in dealing with its changing publics. Today, a firm’s publics range from women to minorities to senior citizens to homosexuals. Each might be important to the future success of the organization.
  • Proponents, opponents, and uncommitted: An institution must deal differently with those who support it and those who oppose it. For supporters, communications that reinforce beliefs may be in order. But changing the opinions of skeptics calls for strong, persuasive communications. Often, particularly in politics, the uncommitted public is crucial. Many a campaign has been decided because the swing vote was won over by one of the candidates.

The typical organization is faced with a myriad of critical publics with whom it must communicate on a frequent and direct basis. It must be sensitive to the self-interests, desires, and concerns of each public. It must understand that self-interest groups today are themselves more complex, Therefore, the harmonizing actions necessary to win and maintain support among such groups should be arrived at in terms of public relations consequences. And while management must always speak with one voice, its communications inflection, delivery, and emphasis should be sensitive to all its constituent publics.

Much more than customers for their products, managers today desperately need constituents for their beliefs and values. In the 1990s, the role of public relations will be much more to guide management in framing its ideas and making its commitments. The counsel that management will need must come from advisors who understand public attitudes, public moods, public needs, and public aspirations.

Winning this elusive goodwill takes time and effort. Credibility can’t be won overnight, nor can it be bought. If management policies aren’t in the public’s best interest, no amount of public relations can obscure that reality:¬† Public relations is not effective as a temporary, defensive measure to compensate for management misjudgment. If management errs seriously, the best-an only-public relations advice must be to get the story out immediately.

If public relations has come of age as a serious and substantive profession, does that mean the end of the slick-talking image merchant? Hardly. People will always be interested in finding an angle or sneaking one by in the “flimflammiest”¬† traditions of P. T. Barnum. But clearly the profession is growing more sophisticated. A public relations professional is a bridge builder, not a drum beater, building long-term relationships between a company or organization and its publics based on two-way communication, serving as an interpreter, helping the company adapt and adjust to the political, social, and economic climate and assisting the public in more fully understanding the company.

In today’s information society, the presence of public relations has never been more pervasive. Nor has its power been more potent, as the demands increase to communicate effectively. No matter what it’s called, the practice of public relations is a critical component of business and business strategy, and it is here to stay.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Public sentiment is everything … with public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed. He who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who executes statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes or decisions possible or impossible to execute.”

Stern And Company
Strategic Communications
info @ sdsternpr.com