By Stanley Olisa
SAT, MAY 23 2020-theG&BJournal- Public relations has suffered a ‘reputation crisis’ over time. A profession designed to manage perception is itself experiencing some misperception. What a ludicrous irony. But really, what does the society think of us as PR practitioners? To many out there, we’re mere publicists, spin-doctors, reactive machines, corporate megaphones or just press officers. These misconceptions are largely traceable to the pivotal practices of American PR innovators like Ivy Lee, Carl Byoir and John W. Hill as well as the critical roles played by some government spokespersons when pernicious propaganda dominated political communications in the West.
As an individual, your reputation is an interplay of three factors: What you do, what you say and what people say about you. If people have wrong perceptions about public relations practitioners, then we’re doing a disservice to ourselves as reputation managers. Eric Yaverbum et al, in their ‘Public Relations for Dummies’, write: “It’s ironic. One purpose of PR is to get good press and avoid bad press, but PR itself has had pretty bad press over the years. The public image of PR has been produced in part by corporate flacks who made their living covering oil leaks”.
It’s apparent that some practitioners have not been practicing ‘good PR’. But that’s a subject for another discourse. I just needed to play up the fact that we’re significantly responsible for the incorrect impressions people have about our profession. Thus, it behooves us to change this narrative by recalibrating our practices. The COVID-19 hurly-burly has even made this more imperative as CEOs have become extremely circumspect of how business dollars are expended, especially on marketing communications. PR shouldn’t be a casualty but that depends on our collective innovativeness as practitioners. PR has come a long way in Nigeria and has attained a laudable height, but we need some ‘image-making’, even as image-makers. This will be achieved through strategic actions in our various organisations and highly publicised intellectually appealing forums. The PR Hub is an excellent example. The value of public relations shouldn’t be a subject of debate.
Good reputation is a sine qua non for any organisation to succeed. No organisation desires negative press. We all want our publics to continually take actions that support our corporate goals. This is the definition of brand success. And in this lies the true value of public relations. The need to maintain mutually beneficial relationships between brands and their publics underscores how invaluable PR is, even though some CEOs are yet to fully grasp its potency in positioning brands.
PR is a management function but, sadly, some companies engage PR specialists only when they’re being hit by a crisis which threatens their goodwill. They believe advertising and other auxiliary promotional efforts are enough to sustain the image of the company. But this is the point: Advertising does not manage your reputation; public relations does this and more. Even when advertising stops, PR keeps going because brand image must be projected and protected continually. This article is not poised to elevate PR while relegating advertising- each has its prime place. Rather, this piece seeks to accentuate the value of PR in influencing business success, while debunking some falsities about the profession.
It’s time to look beyond publicity stunt, which is only a fraction of PR. It’s time to drum it very stridently that PR practitioners weren’t trained to only draft and syndicate press releases. It’s time for business owners to make PR a must-have, not a nice-to-have or a stopgap activity. It’s time for PR professionals to practice more of broad-based public relations. That’s the only way we can earn and retain our seats at management meetings and entrench our relevance.
It makes perfect sense to define PR here: ‘A deliberate, planned and sustained effort at creating and maintaining mutual lines of understanding between an organisation and its publics so that the former will elicit supportive behaviour from the latter”. The survival of every brand- personal and corporate- is incumbent upon its ability to engender supportive behaviour from its publics, and PR helps to achieve this by deploying strategic communication initiatives, not just churning out press releases to the media.
PR entails the employ of well-conceived communication strategies for engaging the publics and obtaining the desired actions. For the uninitiated, ‘publics’ in PR means specific groups of people whose activities have the potential to impact a brand- the government, regulators, employees, media, investors, suppliers, shareholders, professional unions, host community, customers, etc., depending on the nature of the brand. That’s why you hear terms like community relations, government relations, media relations (the most prominent), employee relations, investor relations, etc.
The PR specialist is saddled with the responsibility of managing the relationships between these sets of people and the organisation, leveraging effective engagement channels to gain their support and loyalty. The success of the organisation is decided by this art of managing relationships and maintaining lines of communication. This is the true value of PR. Viewed through this periscope, you can now understand why core PR practitioners would frown upon any import of PR suggesting only publicity creation.
I mentioned the concept of ‘supportive behaviour’ in a preceding paragraph. It’s a requisite for every company’s growth. When your host community has a friendly disposition towards your company, that’s a supportive behaviour. When your customers continue to buy your product, that’s a supportive behaviour. When your investors are willing to invest more, that’s a supportive behaviour. The PR practitioner’s job is to ensure that the company always gets this supportive behaviour.
Business owners expect PR to add to their revenue and justify its budget. PR does not shirk in this regard, as it ultimately adds to the bottom line. But let’s understand that PR isn’t advertising; neither is it marketing or direct selling. While advertising is loud and pronounced, PR is ‘silent’ and subtle. It’s also more believable because its contents fall under editorial category. PR makes the job of the sales executives easier by generating goodwill and favourable public perception for the brand. PR does the groundwork for other promotional activities to thrive. Hence, its results are long-term.
PR expert Godfrey Adejumoh, in his article ‘What is the Currency of PR Practitioners?’, writes: “The currency of influence by the PR practitioner is so critical that it plays a major role in aiding the go-to market strategy of the organisation, it inspires the business continuity plan and provides input into the business forecast in the short, medium and long term. These are no doubt key deciding factors for the sustainability of any organisation”. This further expands the relevance of PR in any corporate entity and espouses the not-so-noticeable aspect of the profession. Apart from news management and publicity, PR also involves research, trend analysis, employee communication, thought leadership, communication advisory, issues management, CSR management, etc. Each of these requires a bespoke strategy.
The main takeaway here is that PR is much more than what people perceive it to be. It’s a broad discipline which tremendously impacts the survival of a brand. PR practitioners have to demonstrate their true value beyond publicity stunts and correct the misconceptions about their art. As long as brand reputation remains key, PR will continue to play a valuable role in building and sustaining brands.
Stanley Olisa is a Media and Communication Consultant in Lagos. Email- email@example.com