Public relations, contrary to what I suspect many people believe, is not a synonym for media relations, or placing stories in the media.

Public relations is, in fact, about helping create positive, mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their stakeholders. Media relations is one way of doing this.

On the upside, placing positive stories about an organisation in the media has been proven in many cases to be an excellent way of enhancing an organisation’s reputation, or that of its products and/or services. It has also helped increase sales and profits for an organisation and its products and/or services.

On the downside, however, media relations is still not (despite the advancements of Web 2.0) a dialogic platform. It does not facilitate mutual understanding between an organisation and its stakeholders.

Having stories placed in the media does not help an organisation understand the needs, wants or issues of its stakeholders. It does not, therefore, realise the strategic capability of public relations to its fullest extent.

Media relations can be a powerful tactical manifestation of a public relations strategy, but for the public relations to be fully effective it must be multi-faceted and look at the organisation-stakeholder relationship holistically.

It is absolutely critical that mechanisms are built into the strategy that provide insights into stakeholders that an organisation can learn from. Based on those insights, an intelligent organisation will evolve the nature of its operations/business (not just its communication). This will lead to greater stakeholder satisfaction.

Another way of putting this is brand loyalty. That should bring the ‘marketers’ out of the wood work.

The primary tool that organisations will utilise to generate insights is market research.  But research and feedback mechanisms need not be onerously expensive or mind numbingly complex to provide meaningful information:

  • They can be qualitative and/or informal
  • They can be integrated into communication mechanisms (e.g. feedback forms or roving interviewers at events/speaking engagements; questionnaires in e-newsletters)
  • The upsurge in use and effectiveness of digital communication makes communicators’ lives easier in this regard.

Education’ is a notion that is particularly analogous to public relations. It is about knowledge being gained; gained by both organisations and their stakeholders. The more organisations and their stakeholders learn about each other – their behaviours, their processes, their products and services – the more educated all parties are in making decisions in regard to their respective opinions and behaviour.

Media relations is certainly an excellent way to educate the broader or quite specific communities (e.g. the mining business through mining business media, agriculture through agriculture media etc). But those within the public relations and marketing industries should be careful:

Relying upon media relations solely, or too heavily, is unlikely to achieve the most favourable results possible for organisations in regard to desired stakeholder responses.

Finally, as wide reaching and credible as editorial coverage of an organisation can be, it should be remembered that the media will sometimes interpret information transmitted by an organisation in a manner in which it was not intended.

This can be because the organisation was ignorant of, or wilfully defied, other salient issues that impacted on the media’s interpretation of the organisation-driven information. Or it could be because the media felt taking a problematic, divisive and/or negative approach to the information made it a stronger ‘story’.

Whatever, the end result can be an unmitigated disaster of a story for the organisation, making the establishment of mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their stakeholders more important than ever.

Organisations should never lose sight of the fact they need to understand their stakeholders (and that includes the media). And they need to learn from them and evolve. Not to do so will compromise relationships, reputation and business/organisational outcomes.

[So here is the thing: public relations professionals are some of the worst offenders when it comes to using public relations - or the term 'PR' - as a synonym for media relations. By doing this, we build and perpetuate this erroneous perception of what public relations equates to and its relevance to organisations, individuals and society. I have heard very senior public relations professionals do it.

So why is this the case? What can be done about? It would be great to hear your thoughts!]

NB. There is a terrific discussion on this post going on in the Public Relations Professionals group through LinkedIn.