A Challenge for PR People: If Our Own PR Is so Bad, How We Can Fix It?
By Donna R. Maurillo, Director of Communications & Tech Transfer, Mineta Transportation Institute
Why did we go into public relations? It’s not for the glory because nobody understands what PR is. You’ve heard people say, “It’s just PR” when they really mean, “Here goes someone trying to pull the wool over our eyes.” Even companies that hire us think we’re disposable – something to cut from the budget when business is slow. The real issue is that we get no respect – not from clients, from news media, or even from our friends. Even worse, it’s our fault. Reporters dislike us because we’re always begging them to run stories about our clients or employers. Whenever I’ve had to do “media call-downs,” I picture some guy on deadline who has to answer my intrusive call. “Did you get our news release?” “I think so.” “Are you going to run it?”
The fact is, clients think PR people aren’t doing their jobs if they don’t chase reporters to follow up on news releases. Multiply that by hundreds of releases that flood a reporter’s mailbox, and you can see why they avoid us like yesterday’s fish. The only way to save ourselves is to educate our clients (not always easy) or not do the call-downs and say that we did (too dishonest). Too many people think public relations is a profession in which we schmooze at soirees while cutting deals to get our clients into Vanity Fair or Harvard Business Review. The truth is, when we arrive at our darkened homes at 10 p.m., it’s usually because we were toiling over a keyboard, trying to write a PR plan that might get our clients to appreciate our contributions to the bottom-line.
Sometimes we’ve been treated as jokes. During the tech boom,Silicon Valleywas awash in what the media called “PR bunnies” – attractive women using the profession to get up close and personal with newly-minted millionaires. It was the high-tech version of airline stewardesses in the 1960s. Not even our friends have a clue about our profession. “You’re in PR? Don’t you feel guilty about making bad companies look good?” “Public relations? Is that like publishing?” “Oh, you’re a spin-meister! Haha!”
Sometimes even we don’t know what we do. Ask ten PR practitioners to define our profession, and you’ll hear a dozen different answers. “We ask reporters to write about our clients.” “We get free publicity for product launches.” “We write and distribute company announcements.” “We train executives for media interviews.”
If we can’t define our profession, how can we get the respect we deserve? We’ve failed miserably at doing our own PR. Isn’t that ironic?
Here’s how to solve it
Let’s change that. For starters, let’s agree that PR goes beyond news releases. (And let’s call them news releases because “press releases” implies that we’re limited to print media.) Let’s also agree that “public” + “relations” = “the way we relate to the public.” In other words, public relations is everything our clients say and do. It’s a company’s reputation. Therefore, our entire purpose is to help build the best possible reputations for our client companies. That’s how good companies attract and keep customers, which in turn rakes in the profits. What company doesn’t want that?
The reputation we help build can’t be a thin veneer. It must go to the core. So let me suggest something bold. I think we should be the conscience of our client companies. We must define ourselves as the people who help businesses ensure that ethics are followed, that employee policies are fair, that products are reliable, that executives are straightforward in their interviews, and that all the facets that build a solid reputation are in place. What the company says must equal what the company does. It’s that simple.
Build on the foundation
News travels fast. Bad news travels faster. That’s why we must care about our clients’ core values. For example, an occasional product glitch will be forgiven if a company is otherwise known for quality. (Toyota, anyone?) By treating employees well, the company has a better candidate pool to choose from. (People clamor to work at Google.) By being direct and honest in interviews, management will become the “go to” people when reporters need a reliable source. (Lee Iacocca comes to mind.)
Deliver the message
Then we have to deliver that message in every possible way to the people who care. That’s the news media, of course. But it also includes customers; vendors; regulators; professional organizations; opinion makers; community leaders; sales prospects; educators; anyone familiar with the client’s brand; and many more. It even includes competitors. At every important touch point, we must counsel our clients to maintain an upstanding reputation.
We can deliver bottom-line value
When PR professionals persuade clients to stick with core values and demonstrate them at every touch point, even the most difficult battle is half won. To do that, we must fully understand that our role is strategic and that our counsel directly strengthens a client’s viability. Unless that happens, we will never have the respect we deserve.
When I was consulting, officials from a snack food company called with a PR problem. Due to an economic recession, they had to cut about 25 percent of their staff. They worried about negative fallout, especially with Christmas coming up. So we planned our approach with core values up front. First, employees were a priority because they were most directly affected. The company would provide a generous severance package. Cuts would go across the ranks, including executives. Employees would receive good reference letters and placement counseling. And the announcement would be made to everyone at the same time and place. Laid-off employees would not be treated differently.
We also notified city officials so they would not hear it from the evening news. We provided fact sheets in case reporters called City Hall. Officials also were assured that this was not a run-up to a plant closure. Only then did the company issue its news release. When reporters arrived, they were allowed to film inside the facility and speak with employees. Because the company had handled a difficult situation with sensitivity, employees had only positive comments for the media – including those who were laid off. Reporters said this was the best handling of a layoff that they’d ever covered. If the situation had been handled another way, no amount of positive spin in a news release would have made a difference.
About the Author: Donna R. Maurillo is Director of Communications and Tech Transfer for the Mineta Transportation Institute, a public policy research organization. It is affiliated with San Jose (Calif. )State University. Previously, she managed public relations for several Silicon Valley technology companies./author]