As my first year of graduate study in public relations draws to a close, I feel compelled to discuss something I don’t think enough people realize: Public relations isn’t that easy.
Having experienced a myriad of internship and informational interviews, conferences, PRSSA meetings, lectures and other industry events, I feel qualified to make that declaration. It is inspired by a disturbing realization I had this year. There is a very real issue public relations practitioners have to face every day. They have to justify their existence in corporations and the usefulness of their services to clients.
I would argue the root of all evil in the public relations justification battle are the following sentiments: “It’s just communication. Anyone can do it,” or worse yet, “I’m the fill-in-the-blank-with-C-suite-position. I know best.” If those were true statements, I imagine we wouldn’t have this list detailing the biggest PR failures of 2013.
While incredibly savvy business people with MBAs who understand more about finance and investments and corporate law than many public relations folks could ever hope to know, that does not mean those people know how to communicate a message strategically to their organization’s publics. Being blinded by hubris is perhaps the worst quality in a leader or communicator–and, unfortunately, that is a quality we see all too often in corporate America.
The simple fact is in order to avoid crises, organizational communication cannot be a shoot-from-the-hip-whenever-the-spirit-moves-you activity. It, also, cannot be a non-existent activity. Social media has given a voice to the publics. Whether or not an organization wants to hear from its publics, they have things to say and opinions about choices an organization or individual makes. Strategic communication is no longer an option–it is a necessity. And, no, not just anyone can do it. Because…
It Takes Time
If done correctly, strategic communication is incredibly time-consuming. Public relations does not just serve one function. It is not simply spin or pitching to the media. I’ve often thought people would have a better general understanding of public relations if it was called “public relationships.” Really, that is our business as PR people: We manage public relationships with our organization or client.
Who is the “public” to an organization? Everyone. Literally, everyone–from employees to shareholders to opposing activists to casual customers to loyal customers to policymakers to regulatory organizations. Then, within those subsets of the public are more subsets (hence the PR term for constituents “publics”).
Further, everything from how the message will be delivered to what the key takeaway is to what consequences could arise from this, that or the other thing has to be thought of and planned for in advance.
Does the CEO (or president or whomever) have the time to manage the relationship the organization has with all of those publics, tailor messages and focus on his or her other responsibilities? Not if they want to do it well.
It Takes Specialized Skills
PR practitioners have very acute writing, research, planning, evaluating and, often, technology skills. These days, many PR folks are very skilled coders, videographers and photographers. They understand advanced computer software to help them design communication elements.
At the very least, PR people have honed their writing skills to a point where they can adapt a message quickly for various media based on the needs of a strategic plan they’ve put together based on intense primary and secondary research.
Again, this is not just simple hashtagging we’re talking about. That is merely a tactic amidst a sea of other skills PR people have to master.
It Takes Deep Other-Regarding
I don’t mean to make PR sound high-and mighty. Is it rocket science? No. But it is a social science.
PR practitioners need to be deeply other-regarding. They must think about the socioeconomic condition of the various publics to whom they message. They need to consider the geopolitical climate of the time. They need to pay attention to current events. They need to understand how organizational history shapes opinion. They need to be sociologists, historians and strategists all at the same time.
And these things are important to do for this reason: An organization’s reputation is determined by its publics. In our world of 24/7 news cycles and rapid information proliferation, reputation is key. To maintain a good reputation or fix a bad one, organizations need people whose business it is to understand the publics who determine reputation.
Again, I emphasize this point: A CEO does not have the time to deeply understand the needs, biases and emotional triggers for each unique public. He or she needs PR people who spend their entire careers researching and working to understand people and what makes them tick.
Do you disagree? Can anyone do what PR people do? Or are there other key skills of PR practitioners I missed? Feel free to comment below.