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I hear the words "Help, I've got a PR problem" often, usually from desperate executives hoping to find a quick way to stop a rising tide of criticism in the media. They're hoping that a public relations team will weave bad circumstances into a protective blanket of favorable media coverage, in the process changing inconvenient facts into positive stories. You can easily imagine such a conversation– just scan the headlines about Penn State's football program or Facebook's initial public offering.
Although these situations are usually described as "PR problems," at their root they really aren't public relations problems — they are organizational problems. The first truth of public relations is that all public relations starts with actions and intentions — no magical wand can instantly turn failure into success.
Of course there are true "PR problems." Two years ago an agency for a South Australian government sent 55 live goldfish, along with a supply of fish food, to media executives. The goldfish were sent as an invitation to take a tour, and their bowls were inscribed with the message "Be the big fish in a small pond and come test the water."
Unfortunately a number of the goldfish either arrived dead or were found floating in the bowl when the intended recipients got around to their packages. Now that's a true PR disaster. The agency's head was later quoted as saying, "In hindsight we would probably not do this again."
As president and chief operating officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the world's largest membership organization for public relations professionals, I have a special vantage point from which to assess the rapidly changing profession of public relations. Public relations was also essential in my previous position, where I spent more than 20 years managing Hollywood's trade association, working on global government affairs issues such as the impact of media violence on viewer behavior. In my role at the Motion Picture Association of America both the movie industry that we represented and our day-to-day work on regulatory affairs were dependent upon effective public relations.
As a result, I have a unique opportunity to evaluate how highly visible stories are handled — both the good and the bad — and I see firsthand the public's general lack of understanding of the public relations function. I'm also able to see the opportunities and challenges facing individual public relations practitioners as their work environment changes.
In some ways, misperceptions about public relations are similar to misperceptions about other fields, and they arise for the same reasons. Hollywood portrays police officers as firing their weapons more in a one-hour episode than most actually do over the course of their entire careers; doctors are portrayed as spending their whole day dramatically saving lives rather than dealing with insurance companies.
In reality, a public relations professional will start an assignment by diagnosing the situation. First, outcomes must be clarified. Does the organization have financial, reputational, political or internal objectives? The next step in the classic approach is to methodically work through four stages of action: research, planning, implementation and evaluation. For the members of our organization, this work takes place against the backdrop of an ethical pledge, a pledge that obligates public relations practitioners to tell the truth.
While there are agreed-upon approaches to PR, the profession is evolving at a breakneck pace. In just a few short years the world of communications has been turned inside out by technology. The Reading Eagle has cut back from two daily editions to one and moved online, and the news cycle is now constant. Citizen journalists have the means to report whatever strikes their fancy, every smartphone has a camera and a "tweet" can spread virally in a matter of hours, with all of this activity potentially affecting an organization and its endeavors. Public relations practitioners must be connected to and make sense of that fire hose of news and information.
Unlike in days gone by organizations now speak to their audiences both directly and indirectly using a strategic mix of methods that includes tactics like traditional media, social media and word of mouth. And, unlike in the past, sending a communication is only the start. Listening is now equally important, allowing us to gather feedback from a wide variety of sources using technical tools that can identify, organize, evaluate, and present articles and conversations for analysis. A"sentiment analysis," for example, is summary shorthand for looking at a set of conversations in traditional or social media and evaluating the tone and tenor of the conversations with respect to an organization's goals.
Change in today's public relations profession — and there is lots of it – can be seen from multiple perspectives. At the highest level, the profession is undergoing such rapid change that last year we led an initiative using social media to actually redefine the profession. We concluded that "public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships
At another level, change in the profession can be understood by listening to practitioners themselves, something we do through formal surveys, or informally when I pause in my travels across the country to ask "as a public relations professional, what keeps you up at night?"
I hear many answers to that question. Public relations professionals are in a field that is rapidly becoming more quantitative and more technological, requiring them to master social media and ways to analyze it. They're being asked to think more strategically than ever before, and connect high-level organizational goals to communications programs in measurable ways. They're watching as various disciplines — advertising, marketing and even customer service — are merging with the world of public relations, changing roles, reporting lines, budgets, expectations and outcomes.
At yet another level I have an opportunity to see the real impact of these changes. As my responsibilities include oversight of the public relations function here at PRSA, I'm tasked with implementing best communication practices in a hectic environment where resources are limited by budgets, and where "the bottom line" is a constant presence.
Regardless of these developments, the constant essence of ethical public relations is about creating positive change.
In recent years PRSA's annual awards program honored a public relations campaign that helped lower asthma rates in downtown Manhattan, where communities were subject to the dust and debris left behind after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Another year, the U.S. Air Force was honored for the way in which it worked compassionately and sensitively with families and the media
Ultimately, getting the right kind of public relations is as important as avoiding negative public relations, and so I'm often asked what organizations can do to avoid public relations problems.
The answer is simple: do the right thing and tell the right people about it. An organization's actions should reflect its mission and values, and when something goes wrong — as it always will — investigate fully and fairly, admit mistakes, make amends, take corrective action, and then tell the truth about what's transpired: that's how you'll get good PR, and that's not going to change.
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