How Do You Explain Public Relations To A Non-Public Relations Audience?

Feb 17 22:00 2002 Robert A. Kelly Print This Article

Here’s the way I’d explain ... I want to give you a quick overview of where I believe public ... is today. And second, an equally brief ... of how I believe the process can work to

Here’s the way I’d explain it:

First,Guest Posting I want to give you a quick overview of where I believe
public relations is today. And second, an equally brief
run-through of how I believe the process can work to the
advantage of your organizations.

Now, in case you just asked yourself, what am I doing here?,
let me say that I believe deeply that public relations,
properly executed, can be crucial to the success of ANY
organization. So, this is a topic that must be of interest to
a non-public relations audience whose members care about
their organization and, hopefully, who work productively
with their own public relations people. I hope you will
agree at the end of the talk.

Let’s start with a few givens.

The fact is that NO organization – business, non-profit
or public sector – can succeed today unless the behaviors
of its most important audiences are consistent – I guess we
say “in-sync” these days – with its objectives.

So, for most of your organizations, that means public relations
professionals must modify somebody’s behavior if they are
to hit their objective and earn a paycheck – everything else
is a means to that end.

Which is why, when public relations goes on to successfully
create, change or reinforce public opinion by reaching, persuading
and moving-to-action those people whose behaviors affect the
organization, it accomplishes its mission.

So, if your organization isn’t getting the behavior changes
it wanted at the beginning of the program, its wasting its
public relations investment. On the other hand, one way
management can increase its comfort level with that
investment, is to make certain those behaviors ARE modified
as agreed upon up front. That way, management KNOWS it’s
getting its money’s worth.

Here’s why I say that. People act on their perception
of the facts, and those perceptions lead to certain behaviors.
Which means that, at the end of the day, management must
keep its eye on the end-game because the main reason we do
public relations in the first place is to change the behaviors
of certain groups of people important to the success of our

While on the way to this goal, we insure that our activity
nurtures the relationships between those target audiences
and our organization by burnishing the reputation of its
products and services. Yes, we’ll do our best to persuade
those audiences to do what our organization wishes them to
do. But, while seeking that public understanding and
acceptance, we’ll insure that our activities not only
comply with the law, but clearly serve the public interest.
It is then that we pull-out all tactical stops to actually
move those individuals to action.

But where does it all begin? For emphasis, let me repeat
something I said a moment ago. The practice of public
relations is based upon three realities:

0 People act on their perception of the facts;
0 Perceptions lead to behaviors;
0 Something can be done about those perceptions and
behaviors that leads to achieving the organization’s
operating objectives.

But, too many of us – inside and outside the public relations
business – don’t think of public relations in that broad a
context. Instead, public relations is defined by only one
or two of its components: ”PR is all about publicity,” or
”PR is really crisis management” or ”PR is primarily special
events” when, in fact, it’s based upon the three realities above.

All of which brings me to a leading question: What IS a
public relations home run?

My answer to that question is short and sweet and, by now,
you probably can anticipate it: The public relations
professional must modify somebody’s behavior as agreed upon
at the beginning of the program. When accomplished, THAT is
the public relations home run, and that is the way we earn
our paychecks – as noted above, everything else really is a
means to that end.

What I want to do here, is demonstrate a logical progression in
public relations problem solving with the emphasis on a
clear, defined result that meets a key business objective.

And by the way, one reason I define a public relations home
run that way is because I believe very few general management
people, including those in this room, ever think about PR
this way. I want to get your attention by announcing that,
in public relations, a home run can mean nothing less than
survival when it successfully changes the perceptions and,
hence, the behaviors of certain groups of people important
to the success of the organization.

In other words, when those changes clearly meet the original
behavior modification goal set at the beginning of the
program, the public relations effort is successful.

Do I expect this general management audience to
question whether public relations is REALLY
equipped to do that? I certainly HOPE you will!

Answer? Yes, because our roots are planted deeply in
the principle that people act on their own perceptions
of the facts. When public relations successfully
creates, changes or reinforces public opinion by
reaching, persuading and moving-to-action those
people whose behaviors affect the organization, its
mission is accomplished.

Aha, you will ask, but does it work out in the REAL
world? It does, and here’s how:

First, we identify the key operating problem to be addressed.
For today’s talk, I’ll use the example of a national marketer
of furniture imported from the Far East. Let’s say we receive
news reports and other input, amplified by competitive
trouble-making out in the trade, about rumors circulating to
the effect that serious quality problems have cropped up in
the company’s factories in Southeast Asia.

Here, we verify whether the allegation is true or false.
We want to clearly understand how vulnerable we
may be. So, because the company’s sales have
leveled off and are starting to decline, public relations
counsel and staff, working closely with the
company’s manufacturing people here and abroad,
establish conclusively that reports and rumors of
declining quality are without foundation, and simply
untrue. Obviously, were they true, the major corrective
responsibility would fall to the manufacturing and
international marketing people in the company.

But since the rumors are NOT true, we want to verify the
status of both consumer and trade perceptions of the
company’s product quality. Again, we want to be certain
about this step because, here, we establish the specific
public relations problem.

But, a surprise! Probing consumer opinion through personal
contact and informal polling out in the market place, counsel
and staff determine that, in fact, there really IS a
disturbing perception out there that the company’s furniture
line is “of low quality and is overpriced.”

It’s useful to make the point here that public relations
problems are nearly always defined by what people think
about the facts, as opposed to the actual truth of the
matter. And, in this example, it’s clear that negative
trade and consumer perceptions about the company’s
products, however inaccurate they may be, really do account
for the decline in showroom traffic and sales, and
must be confronted.

So now, we establish the public relations goal. Namely,
begin the process of changing public perception of the
company’s furniture quality from negative to positive,
which will lead to consumer behavioral changes, in turn
attracting furniture buyers to company showrooms once again.

Now, and within the overall public relations goal, we set
down our perception and behavior modification objectives.
They will be measured in terms of customers returning to the
showrooms, along with increasing sales, in the first three to
six months following the program’s kickoff, which obviously
will require considerable communications firepower to achieve.
Once the negative perceptions are truly understood, such a
progress marker can be set down, and agreed upon, establishing
the degree of behavioral change that can be expected.

Now we determine the public relations strategy. We only have
three choices: CREATE opinion where none exists, CHANGE
existing opinion, or REINFORCE that existing opinion. In
this case, it is clear that considerable existing opinion
has turned negative on the quality of the company’s furniture,
so the public relations strategy will be to begin the process
of changing that opinion from negative to positive.

At this point, we identify key audiences. Public relations
counsel and staff start with a priority-ranking of those
audiences with a clear interest in the organization, often
referred to as “stakeholders” or “publics.” In this case,
at the top of the list is the furniture-buying public –
customers and prospects – as well as the trade and business
communities, employees, local thought-leaders and media in
the company’s retail outlet locations, and a number of other
possible stakeholder groups.

Here, we begin preparation of what we hope will be persuasive
messages for communication to our target audiences. Bringing
those important target audiences around to one’s way of
thinking depends heavily on the quality of the messages we

It’s a challenge. The messages must disarm the rumors
circulating in the furniture community with clear evidence
of excellent design and construction quality, and seconded
by credible third-party endorsements such as satisfied
customers and top design consultants. They will impart a
sense of credibility to the company’s statements.

Regular assessments of how opinion is currently running
among target groups must be performed, constantly tweaking
the message and, finally, action-producing incentives for
individuals to take the desired actions must be identified
and built into each message.

Those incentives might include the very strength of the
company’s forthright position on the quality issue as well
as the high-credibility endorsement, or plans for expansion
that hold the promise of more jobs and taxes, or sponsorship
of a new furniture cable TV design show.

So, how will target audiences in the various company
locations actually be reached? Among a wide variety of
available communications tactics, choices include face-to-face
meetings, Internet ezines and email, hand-placed newspaper
and magazine feature articles and broadcast appearances,
special consumer briefings, news releases, announcement
luncheons, onsite media interviews, facility tours, brochures
and promotional contests.

Newsmaker special events are especially effective in reaching
target audiences with the message. They are newsworthy by
definition and include activities such as financial roadshows,
awards ceremonies, trade conventions, celebrity appearances
and open houses.

Now, the effort can be accelerated, even amplified by
carefully selecting the most efficient GROUPS of tactics such
as Internet communications, key podium presentations, top-level
personal contacts or print or broadcast media. When
these tools are used to communicate with each target audience,
we want them to hit home!

Equally important to the success of the action program will
be the selection and perceived credibility of the actual
spokespeople who deliver the messages. To achieve effective
media coverage, they must speak with authority and conviction.

Now, it’s time to monitor progress and look for signs of
improvement. Public relations counsel and staff must speak
regularly with members of each target audience, monitor print
and broadcast media for evidence of the company’s messages
or viewpoints, and interact with key customers, prospects and
influentials. And, if resources allow, include local market
opinion polling.

At last, indicators that the messages are moving opinion
in your direction will start appearing. Indicators like
comments in community business meetings, mentions in research
analyst’s reports, local newspaper editorials, e-mails from
members of target audiences as well as public references by
political figures and local celebrities.

What is happening, is that the action program is beginning
to gain and hold the kind of public understanding and
acceptance that will lead to the desired shift in public
behavior. Executed correctly – especially against the reality
of plunging sales – we really ARE talking about nothing less
than the organization’s survival.

And the end-game? When the changes in behaviors become
truly apparent through increased showroom traffic, media
reports, thought-leader comment, employee and community
chatter and a variety of other feedback – in other words,
clearly meeting the original behavior modification goal –
the public relations program can be deemed a success.

In the end, a sound strategy combined with effective tactics
leads directly to the bottom line – altered perceptions,
modified behaviors, a happy CEO and a public relations home

Thank you for listening today. I hope these remarks contain
a nugget or two that assist you in better understanding the
function of public relations in your organization. Especially
how it can strengthen relationships with those important
groups of people – those target audiences, those “publics”
– whose perceptions and behaviors can help or hinder the
achievement of your business objectives.


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About Article Author

Robert A. Kelly
Robert A. Kelly

Bob Kelly, public relations consultant, was director of public
relations for Pepsi-Cola Co.; AGM-Public Relations, Texaco Inc.;
VP-Public Relations, Olin Corp.; VP-Public Relations, Newport
News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.; director of communications,
U.S. Department of the Interior, and deputy assistant press
secretary, The White House.

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