I have been shocked recently (well, not really, but definitely bitterly disappointed) by the lack of understanding of what constitutes public relations. This includes how business-relevant and business-beneficial the discipline is, as well as how much it can benefit society.

The biggest mistake people make is thinking that public relations is a synonym for media relations. In a business environment of this maturity, it simply defies belief that otherwise intelligent people can possess this understanding.

But, believe it or not, and I am talking about public relations professionals as well as marketing professionals here, both of whom should know better , this seems to be the case. I base this perception on interaction with communication professionals as well as responses I have seen to posts on various blogs in recent times.

The biggest sinners are public relations professionals themselves:

  • They frequently – and I am taking senior leaders as well as the discipline’s foot soldiers – use the ‘PR’ terminology to specifically describe media relations. I have heard it occur time and time again. For as long as this nomenclature is used to describe media relations then other PR professionals, marketers, the broader business community, the media and the whole ‘great unwashed’ general community will continue to subscribe to the fallacy that PR=media relations
  • As implied above, the public relations industry itself has done a pretty average of promoting its business-relevant, strategic relationship management and society-benefiting capabilities.

In a nutshell, public relations is about creating, enhancing and/or maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders. When operating at its optimum level it is less about control than facilitating dialogue and understanding.

This leads to change, both in organisational behaviour and communication and organisational stakeholder behaviour and communication.

This post summarises some of the strategic and tactical dimensions of public relations that are commonly applied in a functional, utilitarian manner to help organisations (and their stakeholders). More detail is in this post’s ‘partner’.

Market research

  • Clarifying what the research is being undertaken for
  • Developing insights based on the findings
  • Using the insights to shape communication strategy.

Issues and crisis management

  • Issues management is about influencing an organisation to operating more in line with stakeholder expectations, as well as how it communicates with stakeholders on an ongoing basis
  • Crisis management is when the s^#* has actually hit the fan and the communication professional has been brought in to minimise the reputational damage and to maintain, as much as possible, the quality of relationships the organisation has with its stakeholders.

Corporate social responsibility

  • At its core, public relations and CSR do pretty much the same thing: motivate organisations to operate more in line with community/stakeholder expectations
  • The PR professional is ideally placed, then, to play a large role in organisational CSR policy/culture-making, implementation and, of course, communication.

Change management and employee communication

  • Public relations facilitates change, including both internal and external stakeholders
  • Employees of a brand are its greatest potential brand advocates. Without their support the brand is doomed.

Strategy

Finally, of course, when really this is first activity (but I have put it here just to be perverse), the overarching strategic activity of the public relations leader is devising a communication strategy for an organisation and managing its implementation. This includes most aspects of an organisation’s positioning and branding.

Public relations’ tactical activities

There are a range of activities that fall under the more practical, day-to-day side of public relations activities. Some of these include:

  • Media relations – big-reach metro but also B2B and special interest (e.g. music media), which is much more targeted
  • Social media (very much a PR-centric activity because it is intrinsically a dialogic and relationship-building mechanism – two characteristics at the heart of strategically applied public relations)
  • Website – primarily content, but also strategic architecture advice
  • Events and launches
  • Publication production (anything from annual reports to brochures)
  • Database management and direct communication mechanisms like newsletters, e-newsletters
  • Community consultation (think engineering projects, nuclear waste sites next to your local PCYC etc)
  • Sponsorship
  • School education programs
  • Speaking engagements (at business/industry conferences); putting together speeches, presentations, pitching to the event organisers.

More

See Part 2 of this post for a more in-depth discussion of the strategic dimensions of public relations and a conclusion.