Dr Martina Byrne outlines the role public relations has in promoting the bottom line
Whisper it, but PR is not successful because it generates media coverage and mentions on social networks. It is successful because of what it contributes to the delivery of an organisation’s objectives. Depending on the organisation, those objectives could be sales, attendees, donations, votes, employee engagement or vaccine uptake.
The objectives are unique to that organisation, at that time. Of course, other activities also contribute to reaching objectives, not least marketing and advertising. The consumers or service users are key stakeholders. PR professionals must address their information needs and wants. It is worth taking a minute to look at the scope of public relations activities.
They include internal and community relations, corporate and investor communications, B2B relations, corporate social responsibility (CSR), sponsorship and lobbying campaigns. At any given time, a PR consultant or in-house communications manager, may be working with trade unions, HR, local authorities, resident associations, sports bodies and the media.
In community relations, getting people around the table for a conversation is the action that may help save an international infrastructure project or local festival. PR is also good at generating sales. In 1999, Colorado State University communications academic and researcher Kirk Hallahan found that respondents rated editorial higher that advertising.
Happy days for the then relatively young profession of PR. However, a decade later, two other academics, Stacks and Michaelson, published findings showing that advertising and editorial were largely at parity in their ability to affect consumer attitudes to new products.
Not so happy days then. Until one notices that they went on to say that PR appears to have greater efficacy in two critical areas: building a relationship with the consumer and providing knowledge about the brand under consideration. Students of communications, PR, marketing or advertising, know these are two of the most important factors in getting consumers to act.
Far-fetched fun: PR practitioners get as much a kick out of watching Edina and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous as anyone. They know that the relentless partying which the duo indulge in is as much a myth as the misconceptions people have about carousing in adland.
PR has proven efficacy in building brand reputation. While Toyota was dealing with the recall of over seven million cars in 2009/2010, researchers watched the impact on the brand and carried out a statistical appraisal. In 2011, they concluded that editorial results one week reliably predicted brand reputation or other attitudinal outcomes the next week.
Yet the stereotype of the PR professional is a permanently partying Edina of Absolutely Fabulous fame, a hapless Sean Spicer from the White House, or a ‘political spinner’ such as the character Malcom Tucker in the film The Thick Of It. When major projects fail, regardless of poor planning, under-financing, or political flip-flops, who frequently gets blamed?
The spokesperson and the PR team. Shooting the messenger 21st century-style. Describing Irish Water as “a public relations fiasco, a financial mess and a political disaster”, The Irish Times (June 25, 2016) went on to add: “But it wasn’t undone simply by bad PR”. Does anyone seriously think media releases and interviews were the problem with water charges?
And yet, when there is a real crisis, it is not only the chief financial officer or the chief executive officer who gets the early, panicked call: it’s also the PR consultant or communications manager. Why? Because of their knowledge and skill in knowing the organisation’s stakeholders and their individual and institutional information needs.
There is a connection between the stereotypes above and the crisis ‘call out’ that I believe helps illustrate a problem that the profession, led by the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) is tackling. PR – or, perhaps more correctly, relations with an organisation’s publics – is not fluffy or light-weight.
It is not the bit that can be ‘tacked on’ at the end of a project, tender or business plan. It should not be the last item on the agenda, the one that gets dropped or rushed if the meeting runs late. PR should be at the start of every important decision. Communications must be on every agenda and communications skills in every senior management job specification.
In summary, public relations professionals establish lines of communication between an organisation and all its stakeholders. Every day, members of the PRII and PRCA use research, knowledge and communication skills to guide their clients or employers. They work to help inform management and be responsive to public opinion, attitudes and trends.
Just because we enjoy Edina and Patsy’s adventures does not mean we have ever met someone like them. However, PR has been remiss in allowing dismissive commentary to go unchallenged. We need to consistently show the connection between what we do and how our client or employer does. Not in terms of media coverage. In terms of reaching the business and wider objectives set. In terms of the contribution PR makes to the bottom line.
Dr Martina Byrne is chief executive of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA)