Why the public relations agency is misunderstood
I just about burst a jugular last Thursday. For those of you who know me well, you’ll realize it's not an uncommon occurrence.
In this particular case, I was participating in a discussion on the Canadian Marketing Association’s LinkedIn group when I read, “the heart of PR is to control the spin.”
The statement irked me for a number of reasons. First, PR is a diverse field, encompassing much more than media relations. Second, even when a public relations agency is involved with getting media coverage for a client, we are not “controlling the spin.”
Many definitions of public relations
PR is not just media relations. In fact, communications professionals have a considerable amount of additional expertise including employee communication, blogger outreach, spokesperson and presentation training, investor relations, government relations, speech writing, event organization, public affairs, issues management and crisis communications.
Today, public relations agencies have expanded their services even further. We help clients attract visitors to their websites, then convert those visitors into leads and customers with call-to-action buttons, landing pages, content (including blogs, eBooks, videos and white papers), lead nurturing and email campaigns.
We advise on social media best practices and assist organizations with executing plans on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media platforms.
In addition to media, a public relations agency identifies other influencers, such as dietitians and physicians, and develops communications programs designed to educate and inform.
What is “spin?”
Of course, people misunderstand public relations in other ways. It is true many clients ask PR pros to get the name of their company or brand into the news (or keep it out, depending on the situation).
However, when media relations is identified as “spin,” it’s a derogatory term that conjures images of disingenuous, deceptive, dishonest and manipulative communication. It includes dubious tactics such as cherry picking facts to support a position, the “non-denial denial,” a “non-apology apology” and burying bad news on a day when media is distracted by another event.
Correcting the misperceptions
When you tell people you work in public relations and marketing, their response isn’t always positive: “Oh, you try to convince the public that we should [pick one: buy things we don’t actually need/believe things that aren’t true/trust organizations that aren’t trustworthy].”
I am not convinced public relations is different from other professions. Sure, there are bad apples working in PR. There are also incompetent doctors, lawyers, contractors, bus drivers and financial planners. Nevertheless, these other professions have an advantage. Most people understand what they do for a living and, if they don’t, it’s easy to explain.
The biggest problem with PR is even people working in the industry do not effectively clarify what it is we actually do. When confronted with misperceptions and questions we need to explain our profession in a way that makes it easy for the average person to understand:
- PR involves building relationships, often between business and the media, but also with other businesses, professionals and the consumer
- Many public relations agencies help charities educate people about ways to improve their health and lifestyle (the Heart & Stroke Foundation is a good example)
- Sometimes PR pros help organizations tell their side of the story, especially in situations where they face a disproportionate amount of criticism
- Public relations professionals help companies get the word out about new products or services and create campaigns that encourage people to visit their website and become customers
If you ask a half dozen PR practitioners to define public relations, you’ll likely receive at least a half dozen different responses. As an industry, we need to start treating “public relations” the same way we approach a client challenge. In our case, we need to work harder at explaining our activities in order to combat the misperceptions of the public relations industry that currently exist.
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