Amanda Lyons, senior consultant, BLUE Communications de-mystifies what public relations really is….and isn’t.
Most public relations practitioners will have a well-rehearsed description of what PR is, what it definitely isn’t (we regularly shudder at the terms ‘spin’ or ‘free advertising’) and how it can benefit companies by building strong and enduring reputations. As the PR industry continues to struggle to shrug some off the intangibility associated with its own reputation, explaining the value of good communication comes with the territory; whether it’s to a new contact at a networking event, or a client’s CFO who wants to understand the ROI.
The first part of our job, the ‘why’, has become easier over time; fundamentally companies understand that a good reputation is a powerful business asset. They recognise that it can drive sales, increase loyalty, open doors and ultimately provide extensive commercial and social currency that benefits shareholder and enterprise value. Similarly, most companies fear damage to their reputations. It’s explaining the ‘how’ where we often have some of our most interesting conversations and in many cases these have sparked ‘eureka’ moments when people see how a strategic, comprehensive communications approach is not smoke and mirrors, but a practical discipline that can help their business build its reputation to support long-term growth. In our view there’s a sound rationale as to why Bill Gates once famously said that “if I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on PR“.
One of the common misconceptions is that PR and media relations are interchangeable. Indeed, the phrase ‘corporate communications’, spanning multiple stakeholders beyond media, better describes what we do. It’s an easy trap to succumb to, as media relations activity frequently forms a large and often essential part of a PR programme due to the media’s capacity to build reputation and communicate important messages to large numbers of people. At BLUE, we pride ourselves on having a strong global network of media relationships across the marine, energy and mainstream business sectors – and a strong track record of facilitating beneficial exchanges between them and our clients.
But, pigeonholing PR communications into just media relations is prohibitive, wholly inaccurate; the equivalent of having one hand tied behind one’s back. Whilst the media is an important channel in shaping public perception, reputations are built from the cumulative perceptions held by a company’s entire breadth of stakeholders; customers, prospects, employees, governments and industry bodies to name but a few. It’s what they say about you and your organisation when you’re not in the room that’s the true reflection on your reputation.
True PR is the recognition of this big picture and understanding the nuances of a company’s relationships with each stakeholder group so that a tailored, effective communications approach can be developed for each audience. And, just using one tool from the toolbox isn’t going to meet these needs. In this way, companies are very similar to people. Through the course of our daily lives, we interact differently according to whom we are with and the situation we are in. And, we communicate in person, online and in different surroundings. Yet, we retain our own essence of who we are – our own personal ‘brand’, where our values and what we stand for stay the same. How companies engage with different groups to proactively build and manage a reputation is no different.
Taking this view suddenly broadens the opportunities for companies to engage with their stakeholders according to what will achieve the best result. For example, in increasingly regulated industries such as shipping, energy and offshore, understanding policy changes and opening lines of communication with regulators – and sharing this intelligence with clients – can have a more meaningful strategic impact on a business’ operations in a particular moment in time than securing column inches or running a feed on Twitter.
Similarly, companies that are looking to branch out into a new sector or build knowledge and networks in a focused industry area might actually see significant advantages in sitting down face to face with a number of carefully selected influencers or decision makers, compared with a high profile, mass market campaign. It doesn’t mean to say that the same or complementary messages shouldn’t also be pushed through the media to add weight to communications, but the greatest impact and opportunity to influence – in these cases – may reside in other channels.
Today’s digital era also increases this choice. In terms of social media, the pendulum has swung from skepticism of the relevance to B2B sectors of channels such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to an abundant, even sometimes over-zealous desire to use these channels to be ‘on-trend’. We believe there’s a middle ground. These channels can have tremendous value when they are fit for purpose and appropriate as part of a wider communications strategy. Add to that the plethora of other online platforms and the choice extends further. In fact, it can even quickly transition from empowering to overwhelming.
So, in essence PR is quite the chameleon. Far from being a ‘one trick media relations pony’, it has huge versatility. And what’s more, it doesn’t have to be complicated. From running an international brand campaign to setting up one meeting that creates new revenue earning opportunities, that pays for the annual PR retainer four-fold, it all comes back to understanding how communications can support the business objectives and delivering consistent messages to the right target stakeholders. Put simply, it’s identifying who you want to talk to, what you want to say and how best to say it, whilst always keeping the end-game in sight. The real trick is for organisations to recognise the breadth of true PR and the impact that an integrated and multi-channeled communications strategy can have.