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Aspects of PR career

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The story is told of a 1970 graduate of an Eastern college who told his school advisor that he wanted a career in PR: "I'm interested in the public service type that would give it some meaning; but I need something that pays pretty well because I'm getting married." He was reminded that business PR tends to pay better and that, regardless of theory, there are more openings for recent graduates in the economic types than in others.

A majority of the nation's public service related enterprises having PR are linked to business and industry. Almost all cultural, health and welfare entities, the big tax free foundations and even those associations sponsored by business usually aim their PR at the business community.

The apparent cleavage between business and public service PR lies in their respective goals. Modern business has not changed in its aim to refine profits; public service agencies generally aim at providing benefits to publics without requiring direct compensation. Modern business almost uniformly considers among its priorities the rendering of services and the manufacturing of products that are in the public interest.



When a PR practitioner enters his office nowadays he is aware of a working relation with perhaps 50 categories of public concern that become his own concern at one time or another. A glance through the files of any city newspaper for the past ten years will quickly disclose what dramatic national, state or regional problem was uppermost in public awareness at a given time. If the employer is a public service agency concerned with a specific problem related to housing, that is the PR man's daily focal point; but he is also expected to have "public concerns." On any given day he may be in the office of a nearby company discussing his subject with an executive to gain the company's support. Or, if he is a business PR practitioner in that company, he may visit the agency devoted to housing to discuss the needs of the company's employees.

More basic than the specific responsibilities met by practitioners in the respective fields suited to PR careers is the candidate's personal interest. When a PR career is entered upon with a full sense of its vocational aspects, the practitioner tends to gain a professional capability at an early stage. For example: athletes, ministers and teachers who shift to PR from the vocational duties of these crafts are obviously vocationally motivated PR men, and from the professional PR viewpoint, they are little else. But if they are aware of that and add adequate PR techniques, they become top flight practitioners: vocational interest plus techniques.

Three Aspects to a PR Career

Broadly, three operations levels face the practitioner: the community is placed first because it shows as a public in all types of PR: for public service PR it is the "local level," for business and industry it is the seat of the employees or customers, or both.

The support function in PR is typified by publicity and other programs for which the subject, department or other unit may change from day to day, from month to month. In a retail chain or big store, a writer may continuously travel from one subject or location to another; always writing and executing a function. He may do that in an association: aiming publicity at various public levels.

Institutional PR is the corporate policy or top management aspect: it may take many forms, but its aim is to build and enhance the prestige of the enterprise.

Almost all PR career practitioners become involved with all three of these, most often simultaneously; and, in most fields, all three become the immediate assignments of newcomers.

Public Priorities in PR

To paraphrase the cynical philosopher who said that if there were no God mankind would invent Him, it may be said of PR in the 1970's with their multitude of public priority concerns: if there were no PR we would invent it.

In 1971, who could ignore pollution, poverty, ethnic relations or any number of problems not altogether unrelated to our democratic form of society? Each of the three examples named above might have been a "priority" at any time in the past hundred years. Within limits, the technique applied for PR consideration of most public concerns can be divided into two types: 1) Those for which an aggressively planned approach brings periodic victory, and often a start on next year's campaign; 2) those negative problems for which PR aims at shifting the employer's position from a defensive to an offensive stance.

A PR Dilemma: Pollution

An excellent national study on "problems and challenges facing America," by Walter G. Barlow (senior partner, Partners for Growth, Inc.), published in the Public Relations Society Journal (Oct. 1970) shows the Vietnam War as the No. 1 priority among a balanced segment of PR, press, business heads, education, religion and government. Pollution was listed as the second priority. A less formal study of the same area, by another source, in 1969 showed the "Bomb" No. 1 and pollution second. Although the broad national interest goes back 20 or more years to a critical air pollution situation in Southern California, both air and water pollution go back in our country at least to the rise of industrialization. Pittsburgh was called the "Smoky City" more than 50 years ago. The point is: Pollution in the 1970's is a top national issue that no special interests support or promote. (Unlike wars, population explosions, welfare policies, etc.) Mr. Barlow lists 30 issues with Space Exploration scoring zero as an issue to all except 2 per cent of PR and 3 per cent of educators.

On December 7, 1970, The New York Times published extensive data showing that forty eight states were engaged in some facet of "pollution." They also showed a great many activities at other governmental levels, paradoxically referring to "municipalities" as prime polluters.

Meanwhile (based upon reading The New York Times file for the entire year prior to the above date), innumerable companies, municipalities and other bodies have been cited as polluters; have sometimes acknowledged the charge and corrected the situation; on other occasions acknowledged it, paid fines and let it go at that; or paid fines and started correctional measures. Air polluters, notably vehicles powered by internal combustion engines and gaseous smoke from various types of heating units in buildings, have been under attack for at least half a century. Here, too, corrections are proceeding, but at the start of 1970 larger cities are "unbearable" at least from time to time.

"Pollution" may be termed the all time champ as a PR issue. Applying interchangeably, concurrently or consecutively to air and water, it is unimaginable that any city in the continental U.S. is without that issue. In the example that follows it is suggested that the form applies to each of the problems and challenges facing PR practitioners everywhere. We shall structure our PR situation as being a one man department in a single division chemical industry manufacturing company. We will assume that some waste materials reach a nearby river that is more dramatically polluted by untreated sewage from the area's municipal resources.

To give our example currency in keeping with typical present day progress in correcting once neglected pollution, we will assume the two unofficial committees exist: one is composed of civic interests, the other has a representative of the company, of the municipality and of several others who are culpable. Also, that a state control agency is active.

In any situation like this, PR must formulate a plan of action for review and approvals in the several management areas that might become involved. We should pause a moment to say that perhaps the practitioner himself is concerned as a citizen interested in water sports. Also, he may have strong feelings on the present risk to health and other dangers of the polluted water.

Possibly the proposed steps have been taken to some degree if the practitioner has been in office for some time; or they may have been taken by a predecessor. In any event, we will set up a working formula for a management PR office.

Establishing the Company Position

In establishing a basis for any activity, the first and most practical step for a business PR practitioner is to formulate a position paper for the company. It may be diametrically opposed to his personal view; it may be only tangentially related to the community position. However, the company's

PR position should reflect its best interest as it affects its goals in both short and long term views. Such a position paper might be as follows:
  • Subject

  • History

  • Present Situation of Company

  • Appraisal Situation

  • The Company.
" Incidence of seepage of semi treated waste into drainage facilities permitting some waste matter to reach Badger River.

There seems to be no appreciable change in degree or amount of pollutants discernible for at least ten years. First outside objection reached company thirty six months ago; City Industry Badger River Study Committee formed twenty six months ago. Also, Citizen's Boat Committee formed eighteen months ago. Municipality of Badger City is main offender. Three years ago its treatment plant failed; it appears to be inefficient now.

Situation has deteriorated sharply in the last eighteen months due to: 1) continued decline of town treatment facility; failure to pass bond issue election for $250,000 new facility; 2) operations start of Jones Rubber Co. outside city limits one mile upstream from our plant; 3) increasing public dumping at bridge (4th St. and Front St.), also at River Drive route and River Park. Company is not major offender; cost of complete repair $50,000 (est.) not suggested now because in one to two years we will start new X 10 process requiring tool with waste device. If company approves present correction, est. is ten days or more production down time to relocate sewage field, etc. Recommendation: Suggest Company stay in close touch with present committees and other possible places where subject could flame up. State legislature considers antipollution legislation now for air and water. Some action expected. Association reporting weekly on progress. Assoc, is interested only in reporting, not lobbying. Meanwhile it is expected that until Badger municipality acts, no great demand will arise for action.

Dealing with the Press

Assuming that the foregoing position paper is prepared, checked out with interested department heads personnel, production and financial it has been the subject of a meeting with the general manager. It would not require approvals: Management would know status quo.

Suppose the local Evening News calls a week after the above steps (or other preparatory steps) have been taken. Usually, the PR will be professionally acquainted with the caller. He may say: "We have a dispatch from Capitol City saying that State U. officials testifying on the pollution bill named Badger City and two manufacturers as water polluters who will be sued by them unless correction steps are taken. What are you people doing about that waste situation?" Normally, even in large cities, reporters who handle specific types of stories have files in front of them when they ask questions.

In this case we have described our preparation to be ready for a program plan when needed. There is no question that the reporter is writing a story and it will include all local pollution hazards, whether our company is involved or not.

However, once a key name gets into a story, if other information is indicated it must be given, or have it said that it was asked for but not answered. Business people do not always understand that little equation: but PR people do. The best procedure is to be as helpful as possible within keeping of the PR executive role. PR does not even "keep it out of the paper," but PR can and does trade off priorities. The follow up answer does that.

As you know, we are represented on several anti pollution committees dealing with this subject. Also, we have identified the supposed seepage that could pollute. As far as I know, all interests here have acknowledged their part in the bad situation in the Badger River. We have our fix under study with reports being made to the municipality and anyone else concerned. We could effectively be letter perfect on any trace of waste pollution within two weeks. The reason we have not moved is that our contribution is admitted by all to be minor: when we correct it, the over all situation will not be noticeably changed. In any event, however, it will be changed by next year because of a new process. I am not doing a cop out: if that seems to be ducking the issue, you might wish to check it with the municipal engineer and if it is questioned, I will get a statement from our president.

Most reporters will have written down everything you say in response to such a question. It is possible he will say:

"No, don't bother him now. This looks OK to me." He is saying that your statement will be in the paper. Now you should trade. It is never good to have your name or your function named in a story if it is immaterial, as it is here. Reporters know that, but often PR officials prefer being quoted. You need only say:

What I have told you is in front of me on some notes because I have taken a dozen situations that are current issues, and discussed the company position with anyone around here who has an interest, including our general manager. I would prefer not being quoted. It gives me more leeway to pass along information without being questioned internally.

Most reporters prefer a good source to an attribution, especially when the source is PR. PR officers are not always good sources: some literally try to mislead if their company is remotely culpable. As discussed elsewhere, PR may not give out random or specific information on all matters. For example: on questions concerned with employment, the question should be acknowledged and the questioner told that "I will get back as soon as I have something. Not more than an hour." Reporters should be told, on their first call, what the chances are of getting what they want. On non controversial matters such as vacations, overtime and production shifts, the PR man should have information on tap. Matters of production outlooks, etc., should be relayed, usually to the personnel director.

In presenting an example of a company that is not a major contributor to a water pollution situation, yet is a part of a case that becomes an issue, the aim here is two fold: It illustrates the technique of representing the company; and it shows how the PR practitioner should work ahead to meet possible inquiries.

When a story breaks as illustrated and later involves the company in a story in the local newspaper, the practitioner should make a special effort to secure copies to show each officer or executive who is interested. If he wishes to keep the subject alive, he should indicate that in a note accompanying the newspaper to the president's office:

The information here was reported to my office by the evening paper at 2:10 P.M. yesterday. The statement re: our efforts to make whatever move is in keeping with the best interests of the community, subject to the municipality making correction that would be material, is fairly represented in the story by Joe Smith, who is well informed and cooperative. We will continue to keep abreast and report any change.

Copies of such memos should go to the personnel office and others concerned. Often the financial department is watching such situations because of the legal liability and obvious investment in new tooling. Unless the company lawyer is on the staff, it is not expected that non critical events be reported by PR. The president or financial officer usually initiates such action.

Actions More Important Than Words

The company's representation on the committees is the essence of the pollution example given. Very often when there is a community situation such as this, community clubs whose main interest is in other matters become interested. In instances where the company is not a major offender, a speaking representative should go before them and outline the company's position whenever possible. Where the municipality is the big offender, it should be notified that a representative of the company will discuss the river pollution on the date scheduled; ask if their engineer or someone else would like to go with the company speaker. In water pollution local sports men's clubs are often the most sensitive. Health, education and welfare are also interested in such matters. The company should never issue voluntary statements for publication unless misrepresented in the media. When an inquiry brings an informal statement, even though the PR practitioner normally gives local radio what he gives the paper, he does not give them stories originated by their news competition.

Often PR practitioners are strongly committed to the public, or non pollution, side when their companies become involved. They have no choice: the above type of handling is the only procedure. Even if the company may be the prime offender, PR should develop a position paper before a critical situation arises. That applies to all "issue" situations. The only critical mistake PR can make when the company position is highly negative would be to gloss it over in a way that could mislead reporters or other representatives of the public. The best answer to a negative position on any issue of wide public interest involving the company is: The companies are aware and making studies to correct.

SUMMARY

PR techniques learned in business and industries are the best tools for practitioners who are interested in promoting a "cause" for welfare or civic improvement.

The major "cause" for the 1970's will be air and water pollution both clearly linked to many industries. The PR man in such industries should be sure a position paper is drawn up and approved by company officials before he is asked for a statement by the press.

QUESTIONS

What are the three operational levels common to both vocational and business PR?
What are the major public priorities?
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