Monday, 1 April 2013

Public Relations, What's That?

It all started when an ex-colleague who teaches tourism and resort management called and asked if I could talk to her student and enlighten the teenager about public relations and just what it is that we, practitioners, do. 

We have known each other since our work at an international hotel chain. She was on the F&B team and I was in the PR department. Over the years, we have kept in touch periodically, and later ended up as colleagues at the same polytechnic which I have since left.
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"What do you know about public relations?" my ex-colleague had asked her graduating student. 

The teenager's reply: "If you're in customer service and dealing with customer complaints or requests, that's what PR people do, right? They also write press releases and work with the media?" 

My rather perplexed ex-colleague had heard me on radio the same week, talking about how organisations perceive public relations, its role in business and what can be done to enhance PR's professional standing.

She decided it was timely to invite her student to talk to me. Over coffee, I repeated the question and got more or less the same reply. So I said to the student that PR is not what she thinks it is.

"Pretend you're now a customer. You like a product/service, or you like something you read about it. You go back for more. You'll probably even recommend it to your friends and family. If you get bad service, you boycott the brand, or worse still, you post your complaint online.

"When you tell someone else about your positive experience, you're endorsing the product/service. You're indirectly promoting the brand. This is what we call 'third party endorsement'. It's more credible for other customers to hear about it from you, an independent third party." 

I shared with the student the sheer power of advocacy, telling her that smart companies use this powerful leverage to its fullest. Happy customers will spread the word on social media and by word-of-mouth. Smart companies look after their advocates and invest in their relationship with customers and advocates alike. They pay attention to what customers want. They communicate openly and respond to feedback, both good and bad.  If they have looked after their customers well, these same customers will be less adversarial and more inclined to support them when they become the subject of negative headlines. 

Harley Davidson is one such company who works hard to bond with its customers. It has built a cult following among bike owners seeking a sense of belonging and shared experience. The Harley Owners Group or HOG, in short, is one of the most creative and innovative strategies that has helped create an experience around its motorbikes. I do not own a Harley but somehow, the brand springs to mind when I was searching for a customer case study.

So, where does PR fit into the picture, came the expected question. 

What do you tell a 19-year-old who thinks only that PR is kind-of-glamorous, that PR people are usually the ones who dress and speak well, that they talk to customers and look after the company's image? 

Gosh, it's harder than I thought, figuring out how to get her to "see the light" in the one hour that we have. Hers is such a pervasive perception of PR, and one that I am constantly hearing when I interview someone for a job, when I am at a cocktail reception or when I meet students who profess their passion for public relations.

Depending on who you talk to, there are many definitions of PR. Previous definitions focused on press agentry and publicity. Today's definitions commonly include stakeholder engagement, relationship building, managing reputation and perception. 

A widely accepted definition (advocated by the PR Society of America):

PR is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics.

My all-time favourite definition: 

PR is the planned and sustained two-way communication to build and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between organisations and their publics. 

Explaining the function of PR as simply as I could, I asked the student to think of the PR person as someone entrusted to look after an organisation's reputation. PR serves to promote and protect an orgnisation's reputation. In doing so, we work with internal and external stakeholders to earn trust, understanding and support. And yes, we do work with the media, but that is only one part of the puzzle.  

Beyond the promotion and publicity work, we are often called on to "protect" the organisation from diatribe. There is the behind-the-scenes fact-gathering, working with various stakeholders, including the lawyers, to protect an organisation from an outcry when things do go wrong. This, I explained to my young friend, is issues/crisis communication at work, another aspect of PR.

A crisis of confidence as Singaporeans "Say 'No' to 6.9 million" (re: Population White Paper) in Feburary 2013 at Hong Lim Park. 

Public relations is hard work and it's not everyone's cup of tea, I tell her. There is much, much more to it beyond the smile and the polite voice we put on, or the press release we write. 

By the end of our coffee chat, I am pretty sure I have dispelled any glamorous notion she entertains of public relations. The best advice I could give her is to  read up on the subject, ask questions and sign up for a short-term PR course during her gap year. 

There is much more I wanted to share with her but could not. I wanted to tell her that with the internet and digital devices being pervasive in our lives, newsrooms are no longer sitting ducks for press releases. They have alternative sources of information and multiple channels for spreading the word. And consumers are demanding more openness, transparency and accountability.  

To a non-PR graduate who has barely left the safety and comfort of her lecture halls, all of this would have been information overload, so I held back - for now. I am positive that she will find this out soon enough.

After our meeting, my young friend emailed me and said, as she will be delaying her university application for a year to travel and gain some work experience, she is seriously considering signing up for that basic PR course. 

It's a good start.  

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