Monday, April 30, 2007

What is public relations?

This weekend my wife and I went to dinner with some friends. During the course of our conversation one of my friends remarked to me that she doesn't really know what PR is. Her idea of PR is, in her opinion, simply "getting your nameout there." I was quick to jump on that and explain to her that that is not what PR is. I'm slowly begin to learn that PR has, er, a PR problem. Most people either have no idea what PR is or have some serious misconceptions about it. Here's my personal list of what PR is not, or at least should not, be.

Public relations is not:

- Strictly media relations (although media relations is an important part of PR)
- Spin (although, unfortunately, some practitioners continue to do this)
- Simply making your client or organization look good
- Getting your name out there

Public relations should be concerned with building and managing reputations with a client's or organization's various publics (audiences or stakeholders). To do this, PR practitioners may need to use the media. PR practitioners only hurt themselves with they use "spin" to make their client/organization look good or to achieve more name recognition. An important part of public relations is helping your client/organization practice transparency.

I truly believe that part of my role as a "budding public relations professional" is to help spread the knowledge of what PR does and clear up the litany of misconceptions surrounding the practice. We all need to help PR clean up it's PR problem.


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johnEIEIO said...

Nice posting, Adam.

PR is all that and more. We are the conscience of an organization. We are the ones who are given license to ask the hard questions, "Is that ethical?" "Are we helping our community?" "Is this the best we can do?"

But we should not apologize for being advocates for our clients -- in my case, GM.

While my client is GM, my customers are the public, the media, the car-buyers, employees, my neighbors -- heck, my wife and son too! Anyone with an opinion of GM, our products and practices is a customer of mine.

Transparency is a wonderful idea in theory but a throny one in practice. Here are a few dilemmas businesses and their PR people face regularly:

* While you have an obligation to protect employees and discipline or dismiss an employee who brings a weapon onto company property, would you be considered 'transparent' by confirming the incident but not identifying the employee to the media because of employee privacy laws? What if he was perceived as a continuing threat to the public even after he left company property?

* When should you disclose that you are going to close a plant? Who finds out 'first' ... the employees who have jobs there (and families to support) or the political leaders and taxpayers who ponied up $10 million in tax breaks to facilitate a jobs-protecting product investment? By the way, when do you tell the plant's labor unions? Before the public and media? Do you tell the guy who owns the small bar across the street from the plant -- a business his family has held for 40 years, and one you know will die within weeks of the last worker closing down?


Do you provide access to detailed company information to media representatives when 'Joe Blow' off the street can't get the same treatment? In the blogosphere, this would translate to, 'does the New York Times reporter have more access to company information than a blogger?' Who is our 'public' anymore and what defines their value -- eyeballs? Page views? Unique visitors? Subscribers? Market capitalization of their media holding company?

Just a few real-world situations that PR practioners handle everyday. Sometimes we deal in murky waters of conflicting legal requirements, regulations, labor contracts and the ethical expectations of both our bosses and the public. And, of course, we have to go to sleep at night.

The guidepost I use is a simple one. "What's the right thing to do?" Also ... a great theory, but a thorny one to practice, on occasion.

I sleep quite well every night, having left work knowing I've done my best to do the right thing for my clients and customers. It's not always easy.

John M. McDonald
GM Communications
Detroit, MI