• Some Thoughtful Perspectives on PR Practice

    by  • May 10, 2012 • On Public Relations

    Many years ago when I told my mother I was working for UPI in my first job out of college she figured I was delivering packages door to door. I decided explaining the work of a wire service journalist and how it differs from what your friendly neighborhood UPS does was too confusing and complex so I let it ride.

    When I left UPI and entered the world of higher education public relations I confronted the same problem. Impossible to explain PR at a cocktail party, a family gathering or social engagement. I let it ride.

    Because of its complexity and lack of a distinct, measureable outcome, public relations has always been a profession that is difficult to define. The Public Relations Society of America has just issued a solid new definition for the practice, and that’s to be applauded because it helps build a common understanding in the public relations community. But I don’t think we’re any further along with folks outside the business (especially now that our friends in marketing are co-opting public relations principles as their own). Over the years I have aspired to be an advocate for the value and importance of public relations, and when given the opportunity, I have tried to define it for those who are not practitioners. I know there a good number of undergraduate and graduate students at three universities who have long forgotten the PR gospel according to Hale.

    I’ve taught a lot of public relations classes, but I have been more of a student of the profession. I have learned so much from listening to and reading the perspectives of truly great and thoughtful practitioners, people such as Pat Jackson and Chet Burger, for example. They and a long list of others (including those represented below) have informed and influenced my public relations practice. I’ve collected some of their public relations perspectives to ponder throughout my years in the business, and I thought I would share them with you.

    “Communication is not an end in itself, but a process. Information, awareness, sensitivity are way-stations. The desired outcome is motivating behavior. Doesn’t mean communication isn’t important—just that it’s not enough.”
    The late Patrick Jackson
    Jackson, Jackson & Wagner

    “…Many (most?) of us practitioners think of ourselves as ‘communicators.’ Our degrees are in journalism or mass communication. A large part of our daily effort is on one-way information transfer or, at best, two-way communication—but for its own sake. Moving information, facts, data or feelings is the apparent objective. Clips, attendance, ‘reach,’ and similar measures evaluate success. To all of which knowledgeable employers or clients ask: So what? What has changed because of this? Never mind what our publics are thinking. The question is what are they doing?”
    The late Patrick Jackson
    Jackson, Jackson & Wagner

    “We are not preparing ourselves to serve at the greatest level of value to our managements, for example, helping to interpret the needs and interests of the various publics and guiding management in developing a mutuality of interests with each. If we are satisfied to serve simply as publicists or marketers of a product, service or interest, we shall not help our managements solve their greatest challenges.”
    The late Ralph E. Frede
    Public relations consultant

    “The days of the warm fuzzies in public relations are over. News releases merely for publicity—finished. Newsletter after newsletter just to keep alumni informed—done. The ‘don’t worry about what you say, just spell my name right’ syndrome—gone. Why? Because it’s not effective to focus on the process of public relations, student recruitment and fund-raising programs. For success in the ‘90s and beyond, we in PR must work toward measurable results on the outside, not just more paper from the inside.”
    J.D. Rayburn II
    Florida State University
    Thomas L. Preston
    The Preston Group

    “Public relations professionals must move from the concentration on tactical communications to strategic counseling on relationships and behavior. The true bottom line is not dollars. It is the relationships that earn sufficient trust to motivate behavior. Therefore, no profession is better suited to fill this strategy void than public relations—if practitioners learn and apply the full body of knowledge.”
    The late Patrick Jackson
    Jackson, Jackson & Wagner

    “Just as medicine is tied to healing, law to justice, journalism to truth, accounting to integrity and police to law and order, we must be tied to reconciliation in the ultimate public good, and we must be known as incorruptible on that score.”
    Allen H. Center
    PR author and professor

    “Top management used to ask of public relations counsel, ‘What do I say?’ Now the question being asked is, ‘What do I do?’”
    Harold Burson

    “In an effective public relations office, practitioners realize that generating public understanding takes more than information. It takes communication strategies that actually lead to supportive behavior.”
    Peter H. Hollister
    Northern Kentucky University

    “Though mass media have the broadest reach, they have the lightest impact. Media are a vital part of the process, but the most powerful parts are those that involve direct participation by the audience.”
    Tom Brennan
    Brennan & Brennan

    “To earn respect many forget it takes doing the basics: a.) being on top of the issues, then coming forward with them, b.) recommending solutions to problems, c.) evaluating your work, then, d.) making sure people are aware of your results.”
    Mary Cusick
    Bob Evans Farms

    “It’s worse to send an inappropriate, unsegmented message to an audience than sending no message at all. The multi-thousand circulation, super award-winning magazine is a dinosaur because no group of this size shares common interests and concerns.”
    Kathy Lewton
    University Hospitals of Cleveland

    “Research has not supported the assumption of most PR people that messages change attitudes and that attitude change leads to behavioral change.”
    James Grunig
    University of Maryland

    “The better the public relations program, the less the need for mass media.”
    James Grunig
    University of Maryland

    “Current readership studies indicate that in nearly all cases only a small percentage of intended audiences actually read even the best publications. And those stalwarts see only a small percentage of the issues or information presented. This double whammy has made publications staffs the first choice of downsizers, with good reason: large sums spent for dubious impact.”
    The late Patrick Jackson
    Jackson, Jackson & Wagner

    “Standing for something also means questioning the common wisdom. In the old days, the stereotypical PR man was expected to nod every time the CEO opened his mouth. Today, a head-jerk response can be the worst reaction a practitioner can offer.”
    Fraser P. Seitel
    Chase Manhattan Bank

    “Learn the business, all the business.”
    Jack Felton
    McCormick & Co.

    “Public relations has grown in importance, scope and complexity, and continues to do so. Thirty years ago we were judged by our ability to write a press release and to understand how the media functioned. Today we must know all aspects of the industry we’re in and our company or organization and public relations strategy. It’s becoming extremely complex.”
    Larry Foster
    Johnson & Johnson

    “When strategic and PR planning work together, our staff members see how their work fits into the big picture. This not only makes our efforts more meaningful, but it also keeps us from losing sight of why we do or confusing means with an end. A video production may have state-of-the-art special effects and superb original music. But if it doesn’t achieve the desired change in audience awareness or behavior, we haven’t done our job.”
    Susan Bonnett
    University of Miami

    “PR officers are asked to turn out news releases and publications, to make media contacts and run meetings—usually without any plan, without any purpose, without any objectives. They work to produce brochures that are judged on the basis of graphic qualities rather than effectiveness. In short, they’re hired, judged, paid and promoted on the basis of how well they perform their duties, not on whether they succeed in bringing in more students, or increasing political or financial support, or improving public opinion.”
    Kalman B. Druck
    Kalman B. Druck Inc.

    “Every college in America thinks of itself as unique and in comparing it with any other, representatives almost always mention Harvard.”
    The late Andrew A. Rooney
    CBS News