13 Ways of Looking at PR

The time has come around again — a brand new academic year. Although I’ve been teaching an introductory PR course for 15 years at my state college, it never gets old. I get old. But not it.

The title  of this post refers to a poem called “Thirteen Ways of  Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens.

So as I begin to revise my syllabus — that necessary plan for the fall semester — it seems to me that I might as well spill the beans up front, however many beans I have. That is, what is this subject my students have come to learn? What is public relations? What is it in simple terms — if simple terms can be found?

From a student’s point of view, what is it I have to do in this class? What are the assignments and when are they do? Is this going to be an interesting class? An easy class (I hope!). Will I have to write much (I hope not!)? Will there be a final exam? A project of some sort?

Unless I miss my mark, those are questions a student in introductory PR would be — or should be — thinking about and wanting to know. The syllabus — that rickety and familiar old  idealistic plan — will provide the answers to most of those questions, although not the ones about how hard? how easy? how interesting? how boring? For one thing, the answers to those questions will be the result of whether and to what extent a student comes to believe she understands not only public relations but me, her professor.

So as my laptop battery continues to fade toward zero %, here is a sample of what I know about public relations.

1. It’s about perception. It’s not about what I want you to think. Or about what I try to persuade you to believe. Or about what I think you should believe. Or what I’m sure you think. It’s about what you actually perceive — whether  I like it or not.  Not that it means that whatever you happen to perceive is true just because you perceive it. You may perceive that President Obama wants to destroy capitalism. Or that the  Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was right  to talk back to Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police. In essence, public relations begins right  there — with your perceptions. PR people like to say that “perception leads reality,” which doesn’t mean that it is reality but that our impressions come upon us and influence the world faster and more powerfully than the facts and the truth. This is a very dangerous matter, which poses a continual challenge not only for public relations practitioners but for society to sort out.

2. It’s not the same thing as advertising or marketing or marketing communication or social media or event planning or politics. But it has much in common with all of them. Advertising is space or time that has to be paid for, unlike PR, which is the result of someone else’s decision to use it or reject it. Marketing, unlike PR, is not primarily about communication, but about identifying markets and selling products and services into those markets. Social  media — Facebook, blogs, microblogs (Twitter) and so forth — are channels of communication for the purposes of personal communication, marketing, advertising and public relations.

3. It is persuasive communication, which is not the same thing as saying it’s about manipulation or propaganda or spin or lying. But, alas, it has something in common with all of them. Where PR is typically a strategy of organizations and democratic governments, propaganda is typically associated with the political communication of totalitarian regimes, cults and brainwashing.

Persuasion is the way public opinion is formed, issues are decided, laws are written and power is distributed in democratic societies. But in nondemocratic societies, all those things can happen as the result of dictatorial and military force and threat. Advertising and PR may be irritating, but propaganda can be frightening. (Think of racism, antisemitism and Nazism.)

The ancient history of persuasive communication and public relations is found in the Art of Rhetoric by the philosopher Aristotle. Unlike the  philosopher Plato whose distrust of rhetoric is the source of the distrust of public relations, Aristotle believed that rhetoric was fundamentally ethical and the  basis for the a democratic society’s legal and political functioning.  One of the founders of modern PR, Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, said  that he never persuaded anyone to do anything — he just allowed them to go where they wanted.

4. It is about relationships, as the title of the course implies. Relationships not primarily with the general public, but with collections of individuals who have something of importance in common. They’re newly enrolled freshman at Salem State College. They’re so-called Mommy Bloggers — mothers who blogs, and whose blogs are particularly influential in forming their readers’ opinions about products, services, ideas, politics, complaints. They’re commuter students; they’re residential students.

5. It’s about credibility. Organizations are not unlike actual people in wanting others to believe them, trust them, respect them and even like them. If you understand that, you’ve already learned the basics of “credibility,” which is considered one of the ways PR is different from advertising. Peoples’  likes and dislikes of products, services, people and issues is known as “public opinion,” which is one of the basic ideas of public relations.  As you know very well, organizations are eager to collect our opinions about almost everything via surveys, focus groups, experiments, interviews, video tapes, and many other research methods you learn about in COM 300 (Research Methods).

6. It’s about research. Research is considered the first step in what PR scholars call “the four-step method. The other three are: (2) Setting Objectives, or “o”); (3) Programming, or “p”), which  means putting together a program of actions such as special events, media relations (getting to know individuals in the traditional and web-based media), writing (brochures, fact sheets, press releases, blogs and posts); (4) Evaluation (determining to what extent the public relations effort succeeded or failed via additional research).  Collectively, this four-step process is known as ROPE — and it’s the key to analyzing all public relations campaigns.

7. To the outside observer, it’s invisible. You see a very positive article about a TV star in People. What’s invisible is the relationship that the star’s press agent (press agents are one kind of PR person) created with an editor and reporter at People. You see a speech by President Obama on TV. What you don’t see is me — the speech writer who did 10 drafts of that speech for my client, the president. You see a news item about the newest version of the iPod. What you don’t see is the news release that was sent to the media.

8. It’s free — sort of. Compared to many kinds of advertising, it’s much less expensive. PR practitioners get paid. But they can’t buy PR the way they can buy advertising. Salem State College can’t send a check to the editor of the Salem News and tell that editor to write a glowing story about the college. But Jim Glynn and Margo Steiner and other practitioners of public relations at Salem State’s Marketing Communications Department can email, telephone and write a pitch letter to the editor of the Salem News with the objective of persuading the editor that a couple of professors have written a book which would make interesting reading for the readers of the Salem News.

9. It’s about writing. PR practitioners’ most important skill is writing. No matter how charming you may be, no matter how organized and how web savvy and skilled with video and audio, you’re not going to be competitive for a paid professional job in PR unless you can write very well. Excellent writing in public relations is not unlike excellent writing in journalism — with the major exception that public  relations is a pro-organizational, persuasive, sometimes formal, sometimes conversational kind of writing.

To be excellent, PR writing must be at least 5 things: clear, concise, concrete (specifics, evidence, numbers, quotes), correct (grammar, punctuation, style, usage, spelling), and comprehensive (it must make the context clear so the target — editor, reader, employee, citizen, manager — will understand and not be unnecessarily confused. I say, unnecessarily because even excellent writing sometimes deals with matters of such complexity (health care reform, software upgrades) that the writing needs to be read more than once to be understood. PR can be or seem a matter of words.

The kinds of writing produced by PR writers includes press releases, pitch letters, backgrounders, fact sheets, speeches, brochures, newsletters, white papers, advertorials and annual reports. In adedition, PR writers write for the web (blog posts, tweets on Twitter), write scripts for videos. PR writing is called ghostwriting because the writer is, in effect, a ghost because the apparent and credited author is the organization or one of its executives.

10. It has a terrible reputation. Many people –very smart, not-so-smart, and in between — are convinced that PR is another word for lying. But many people think politics is lying and politicians are crooks who steal your money. Many people think lawyers who defend criminals are criminals themselves. Maybe you think these things.  Probably you’ve hear these sorts of generalizations. But of course such blanket statements like those are more emotional than logical — like stereotypes. Still, that doesn’t explain why PR has a bad reputation. Or why there are so many jokes about lawyers and politicians. Perhaps because people are suspicious of powerful professions which have the ability to get other people to buy things they don’t need and vote for laws that should never be laws.

11. It’s a major source of  news and information. Even though journalists (reporters, editors) are generally skeptical of public relations as a source of news — because PR practitioners’ role is to be persuasive rather than objective — nevertheless,  many reporters and editors use news and tips and stories they get from PR people. Good journalists don’t use PR material without checking out its factual content for themselves.

12. It’s about issues. Unlike marketing and advertising, public relations is often concerned with complex social, political and economic questions. Should the U.S. health care system be changed to include a “public option?”  Should an individual be allowed to download music from web sites for free if the individual only intends to use the music for his own enjoyment and has no intention to market and sell it? Should the U.S. wage a pre-emptive war? Should the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay be closed? Should elderly drivers be required to be tested annually? Should marijuana be legalized? Should abortion continue to be legal or should its peformance be criminalized? A special application of public relations is known as issues management.

13. It’s about crises. When bad and unexpected things happen to organizations, cities, politicians, we call the situation a crisis. When the Airbus 330 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009, it was a tragedy for the victims and their  families and a crisis for the the Airbus manufacturing company and for Air France, the airline whose jet crashed. Watergate was a crisis for the administration of President Richard Nixon. Monica’s blue dress was a crisis for  President Bill Clinton. The apparently  anti-American sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright posed a crisis for the candidacy of Barack Obama.  In July 2009 I taught a seminar on crisis communication at UExternado, a university in Bogota, Colombia.

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