ALVIN TOFFLER, Future Shock, 19701
Our minds reel when confronted with the accelerating growth and complexity of civilization. Technology, education, instant mobility, and communications have created an environment where individual and group perspectives are widening as never before.
The constant generation of new information, the creation of new interest groups, and the acknowledged interdependence of the nations of the world tell us we have entered a new, information-intensive phase of living in which groups must work together for the whole to work. In order for people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to understand and contribute to each others' wellbeing in today's world, effective communication between groups becomes imperative. This is the modern task of public relations.
Debunking Common PR Myths
Public relations as a professional skill grew out of a need for groups to tell their stories and to communicate their positions and objectives to others in a positive and harmonious way. Public relations or PR is now a distinguished profession with many experts high in the ranks of government, labor, education, nonprofit institutions, and, of course, private enterprise. These people are skilled, articulate, and earning top salaries.
But it wasn't always this way. In its beginnings, PR was equated with publicity, the simple bringing of the public's attention to a product or concept. Typical public images of PR include the Hollywood press agent, the slickly tailored, martini juggling yes-man of innumerable cartoons; the hack journalist who fell back on his writing speeches and promotion copy. The stereotype was someone with a big expense account whose job was to pass off nothing as something (or vice versa), a professional role of almost no substance whatsoever.
This is startlingly untrue today. In some areas the work continues to include image building in the sense of pointing to good things about the organization. But in a world that is extremely sophisticated, sharply critical, and hungry for accurate information, the other side is going to be right there asking hard questions. This means that the PR man of yesteryear has given way to one who now is much less a salesman and much more of a spokesman. Public relations keeping pace with the information explosion have evolved into a crucial role in the contemporary organization.
Public Relations Is All Around You
If you pick up any local newspaper, in a few moments' time you will probably read some results of PR activity without even being aware of it: The article on the new building program at the hospital, the announcement of the church bazaar, the review of the new restaurant in town that covers everything from its decor to the menu's specialties, down to the quality of the béarnaise sauce. All are stories placed by public relations offices of one sort or another. Hospitals usually have fulltime staffers issuing press releases (news stories) to local news outlets, working with community fundraising groups, and so on; the church bazaar notice was probably phoned in by the committee member assigned to publicize the event through newspapers, posters in store windows, and mimeographed brochures handed out in supermarket parking lots. The restaurant typically retained the services of a local public relations firm to oversee its introduction to the community.
All these are efforts to communicate the good things that are happening in different organizations, the very essence of public relations. These readily identifiable examples of public relations activity are mostly concerned with publicity. But as organizations expand and become more complex, their PR activity does too. Large corporations and national institutions have enormous and diversified public relations staffs handling all manner of PR tasks, from creating books and films for schools to promoting sympathetic legislation in Washington, to handling customer complaints. It's even more interesting to see how larger organizations use public relations to convey their stories and improve their images.
New Developments in Public Relations
We have noted that PR operates in many organizations, performing various tasks on a regular basis. For a large corporation or institution, one of the most vital aspects of this function is its flexibility. As a body of professionals competent in communications of all kinds, PR finds itself moving into and out of other areas of the organization as its talents are called upon.
In a typical business, an advertising department's mandate is straightforward. Advertise the product or service in such a way as to increase sales. Its energies are concentrated on delivering an exciting visual and verbal incentive. PR, on the other hand, is more concerned with establishing a positive image of the product, and the whole organization, in the public's mind. The techniques of PR are much more subtle, appealing to a less direct urge on the part of the consumer, reader, buyer, or whoever is being approached. Quite naturally, these two tasks are overlapping in the present era of sophisticated and demanding consumerism. The term for this new collaboration between advertising and public relations is marketing public relations. Here the PR concern deals with programs to promote understanding of a product, or deal with the public's resistance to it.
Using whatever's available outside the normal advertising channels, chiefly the news media, to tell a story that will enhance positive opinion about a company product or counter negative opinion about it is the aim of marketing PR. On the "up" side, it works to give advertising people support for the larger benefits of using the product or service, aspects of which may redound to the benefit of the rest of the family or community-areas that advertising, with its sharply focused message, has traditionally kept shy of. It may inform the press about a discovery by a research organization that shows, for instance, that a company product emits less fumes than any other's or is biodegradable.
When a company comes under fire for products that are poorly manufactured or even dangerous, marketing PR people get involved, because it's not just the product that needs help at such times; the company itself is in trouble. Other subsidiaries, completely innocent, may suffer, so the object is to retrieve the good image that has been lost not only by the product in question, but by the whole organization.
As an example, recently Coming Ware was discovered to have produced a defective coffeepot that had to be recalled from thousands of homes and stores. Coming's response was straightforward and bold. Instead of shamefacedly admitting their faulty manufacturing and agreeing to replace the coffeepots for free, Coming agreed to replace any Coming Ware coffeepot manufactured in the last twenty-five years as a testament to their willingness to stand by their products, all of them, practically for all time. This response was so unusual it was reported throughout the press of the nation in newspapers, on radio and television. This was a splendid example of the new PR in action. No games, no hedging. Not only taking responsibility for the acknowledged defective model, but showing willingness to take responsibility for any defective model illustrated Coming's mandate to provide service to the public.
This is a relatively new PR specialty, and it should be watched for its development and the job opportunities it will be making available.
It is important to remember that advertising focuses on marketing and sales. PR is also concerned with these, but its focus is more general in seeking to inform the public about a company or even developing the image of a corporate executive or political candidate. Because of its involvement in sales, marketing, and preparation of media commercials, advertising tends to be more specialized and technical than PR. The generalist nature of PR enables people with more nonspecific back grounds to become involved. The creative services used by both advertising and PR, such as graphics, film-making, design, and photography also create a connection between the two functions. The relationship between PR and advertising is illustrated in PR unit descriptions in the Information Center of this book (Chapter 4). The listing of the top fifty PR firms indicates that some public relations are departments of major advertising agencies.
This is PR's term for the handling of disasters, and is presently in the forefront of attention. A recent Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Crisis PR: When Disaster Comes, Public Relations Men Won't Be Far Behind," reports that "When a nuclear plant fails, an airliner crashes, a car turns up with a dangerous flaw, or a supertanker sinks, the company involved is placed on trial in the press and in the public mind long before regulators or juries get around to finding legal fault. And, many PR veterans say, how the company reacts in this period can mean the difference between temporary loss of public good will and the permanent loss of business."2
Anyone who has watched an evening's news is probably more familiar with this aspect of PR than with any other, because the "spokesman for (company X)" is the officer (usually from public relations) that the company has appointed to face the press. PR has already been heavily involved behind the scenes in any case, because what is precisely at stake is the company's image.
Obviously the tasks in crisis PR are exciting and difficult. Sometimes companies have already set up a "crisis management team" to be ready in such emergencies. Other times they meet and devise strategy on the spot. Often they use outside experts or PR consultants. Various stances have been taken from wait-and-see to direct action. The article describes the situation as "whether staffers or high-priced outside specialists, PR men still must choose whether to hunker down, say little and hope the public memory is short, or to take the offensive and push the company's point of view."
One of the most interesting and encouraging responses to crisis PR, which is becoming a specialty because as the world moves faster and grows more complex, there are more global crises to deal with, is the establishment of organizations such as the Scientists' Institute for Public Information (SIPI). As many disasters relate to failures of scientific equipment of which the public knows nothing and can only feel helpless, the credibility of scientists suffers sharply. This organization was activated quickly after the Three Mile Island nuclear failure in 1979 and is now expanding its Media Resource Service to provide the public and press "with creditable sources of information on science policy controversies as they arise, and wherever possible, before they become emergencies."3
An even more fascinating expression of PR today is image-building. Political figures frequently use specialists in this area to improve their public image for tough campaigns. Some have been even physically transformed by their image counselors through a change of hair style or color, a different cut of clothes, or plastic surgery. At times, top-level executives have been known to hire such counselors to improve their personal images in the effort to climb the company ladder. Obviously, image-building can go to such extremes that the result is a terrific image but no substance. On the other hand, the artful image can enable whatever substance there is to be more effectively communicated. A widely reported White House memo advised a president to put emphasis on his image during his first years in office. It pointed out that many great men of history failed to communicate their messages successfully because they didn't consider their images-and their poor images were what kept people from listening to them.
These activities-marketing PR, crisis PR, and image-building- are but a few examples of the ways PR is all around us and growing in its expressions and responsibilities in this increasingly communicative and demanding world.
What Happens in Public Relations
Public relation is involved in managing change-not making it happen so much as providing for it. Change is a fundamental ingredient of life, including organizational life. An organization that is aware expects changes from outside as well as inside and uses PR to help provide for and flow with the changes. The job of the PR professional is to analyze and understand all the aspects that influence the public's reaction to the organization, inform the management, adapt the organization to positively reflect and respond to these reactions, and inform the public about the organization's needs. This can range from complicated statistical monitoring of public opinion on crucial issues to projects that directly involve people, such as sponsoring local events, distributing educational brochures in schools, or creating fair exhibits.
Specifically, the steps involved in a PR operation usually include:
(1)Analysis and research (2) policy recommendations and modifications (3) program planning (4) feedback (5) evaluation and (6) adjustment. In some situations, PR professionals will focus on one particular step in the process, such as program planning. Of course, the all-purpose PR person performs or oversees all the steps in a given campaign. Obviously, the larger the firm or operation, the greater the number of supporting people required to get the job done.
Analysis and Research:- Every organization operates in a climate and is affected by changing trends and attitudes in that climate. It is imperative to analyze these trends constantly to keep abreast of the opinions of the various groups who interact with the organization (consumers, employees, etc.). Analysis clarifies matters and identifies problems; it is a prerequisite for policy recommendations and program planning. The analysis and research tasks of PR need the skills of statisticians, interviewers, researchers, and thinkers of all kinds.
Policy Recommendations and Modifications:- After the analysis and re-search are studied, the next step is to devise policy recommendations and modifications in keeping with the organization's goals to handle the problem.
Let's say the problem was public distrust of how a company was controlling the price of its product. The oil companies have been faced with this issue since the first gas crisis in the mid-seventies. The public felt, with some justification, that inventories were being held back so prices could rise. The prices rose. Now ask anyone on the street who was to blame for the high cost of gasoline and you would hear, "The oil companies." The truth, however, was more complicated. Here is a problem that required careful analysis and research before the right recommendations could be made on what facts to give the public about company inventory policies and how they relate to gas prices.
Policy recommendations people also determine to some extent how the company informs the public. In general, they try to bridge the needs of the public and the needs of the organization in order to design a harmonious solution that can benefit both.
Program Planning:-. Once the objectives of the organization have been agreed upon, the next step is program planning, or choosing the tools to best implement the policy. Program planners decide on ways to accomplish the company's PR objectives. In the case in point, the oil company may have wanted to create educational programs for the public on how inventory policies and allocations for its gas supplies were established, including how government regulations influenced the distribution of the product. They could do this with an educational film, a TV documentary, a series of newspaper articles, brochures, or in any number of ways.
The company's style may be designated as the problem. Then program planning people use the whole arsenal of PR tools to solve that problem. In addition to printed materials of every type (including stockholder and annual reports), advertising, employee activities, seminars, discussions, community programs, lecture tours, factory tours, and conferences can also be used. Here's where the creative services units made up of editors, writers, artists, designers, printers, and other people in the written and visual arts turn up in PR.
Feedback, Evaluation, Adjustment:- To be a dynamic and positive force in affecting change, the PR staff must get feedback on what it does, so it can evaluate and adjust operations when necessary.
The people involved in this end of the campaign are responsible for accountability, determining what did and did not work. Opinion surveys help determine shifts in public attitudes. These are used to judge the effectiveness of the programs set up to inform the public. It's important to have as accurate an idea as possible of which tool was most effective. Was it the TV documentary or The Newspaper articles? This feedback factor has to be built into the program before it's implemented. It's vital because it tells what worked in which situation so it can be used again, or amplified, and the less successful techniques abandoned.
People in this end of PR tend to be experienced professionals capable of grasping the larger picture and moving forward on the basis of very few details. They would know where to add and where to subtract, when to spend and when to cut back, and when to try something new.
What Are Publics?
Public relation is much more than simply presenting an organization's story. As a dynamic interface between the organization and its various "publics," the PR professional can be deeply involved in shaping the organization itself.
Public is a term that will be used throughout this book. In public relations, it means the group or groups to whom the organization in question is telling its story or relating to in other ways. Publics vary.
A firm may have many firms or individuals as publics, and also be one in its own right in relation to others. A tyre manufacturer, for instance, might have the following publics:
- Rubber, steel, and other manufacturers who supply raw materials or equipment (suppliers);
- The auto, airline, truck, and tractor companies who buy its tyres (wholesalers);
- The dealers who buy and service replacements (retailers);
- The drivers of autos, trucks, tractors, etc., who use and purchase tyres (consumers);
- Local, state, and federal government agencies who pass legislation about quality, price, and usage of not only tyres, but also automobiles, airplanes, trucks, tractors, rubber imports, or anything else related to the tires (government);
- Everyone who owns shares in the company (investors);
- Everyone who works for the company (employees);
- Communities where the factories are located, and where employees are recruited and live (communities);
- Other countries where they wish to sell the tyres (international);
- The media, through which the company tells its story (press).
Public relations has become so rapidly sophisticated that the skilled handling of each of these publics is already a full-blown PR specialty, with its own name and tasks: consumer affairs; government relations; investor relations; employee relations; community relations; international relations; and press (or media) relations.
Many companies take an aggressive and conscientious position in relation to their publics, even to the point of printing and distributing formal public relations or public affairs objectives. It's interesting to see that the public affairs objective of the Caterpillar Tractor Company, which follows,* considers the interests of the publics listed above.
You can write the companies that interest you for their public affairs objectives, which should give you an idea of their overall approach to PR.
* Reprinted with the kind permission of Caterpillar Tractor Co.
Caterpillar Tractor Public Affairs Definition, Objective, and Goals
Public affair is the planned effort to gain understanding and influence opinion, both inside and outside the company, through: (1) actions that are responsive to the public interest; and (2) effective, two-way communications.
The continuing objective of the public affairs activity is to help Caterpillar achieve the understanding and support it needs to operate a worldwide enterprise successfully. In pursuit of this objective, it is also a public affairs responsibility at each operating unit to establish channels of communication with employees and other, selected segments of the public; and to use those channels as effectively as possible to generate favorable attitudes toward Caterpillar's operations, goals, policies, and basic beliefs.
Six Continuing Public Affairs Goals
I. Develop a better, truer public "impression" of Caterpillar . . . what we are, what we do, what we believe:
- A multinational enterprise whose products are doing important, constructive work around the world.
- A strongly service-minded organization.
- A company placing heavy emphasis on research and engineering.
- A member of a highly competitive industry.
- A "quality house": believer in high levels of integrity, achievement, and quality.
- A widely held company.
- A well managed enterprise.
- A good company to work for.
- A good company to do business with.
- A believer in keeping the public informed.
- A responsible corporate citizen.
II. Contribute to an improved "climate" for business operations and an improved community attitude on factors that make settlement and growth in a given country, state, or locale attractive to business.
III. Secure better understanding of the benefits of Caterpillar operations to localities in which facilities are located. Building increased public confidence in and goodwill toward the company, its operations, and its people.
IV. Establish better understanding of Caterpillar's viewpoint on important legislative and other governmental matters.
V. Promote improved understanding of the economic aspects of business operations, especially the creative role of profit in contributing to a better life for employees and the public.
VI. Encourage greater individual participation in public affairs.
May 4, 1978
This list also points up one of the most attractive aspects of working in public relations. Because of the vast variety of organizations where the skill is used, you can cut your career path both ways: you can choose the type of organization that interests you, e.g., government, labor, or business and approach it for a position; or you can choose the type of PR task that appeals to you most, and approach the organization that offers you the best situation for learning or performing it. Your opportunities are doubled.
Professional and Trade Associations
The major purpose of professional and trade association is to advance their objectives and activities with the public. The majority of associations have headquarters in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with regional units in state capitals and county seats. Typical public relations activities include monthly newsletters, preparation and distribution of brochures and news releases, presentations to special audiences, program planning, and lobbying.
Labor unions have growing awareness of the importance of public relations in gaining support for their positions and programs. Print and electronic media are heavily employed. At the national level, the AFL-CIO sponsors news bureaus, radio and television programs, and lobbying activities. Documentaries and narratives of labor problems and programs are produced and distributed. They also emphasize print media, such as brochures, pamphlets, and bulletins, and maintain active relations with the press.
Charitable Agencies, Hospitals, and Churches
Public relations work for charities, hospitals, and churches includes fund raising, increasing volunteer participation, creating a favorable climate for community programs and for new ideas and concepts in their field. Hospital administrators are increasingly aware of their need for public relations with the press, the community, and the people they serve as well as in the area of fund raising. Churches are also turning to the press and electronic media to deliver their messages.
Federal government units (including the armed forces) and state, regional, and local units employ public relations departments. In many cases, they are designated by the words public information. The United States Information Agency is responsible for distributing information about the United States and its people internationally.
Schools, Universities, and Cultural Institutions
Public relations for schools, universities, and cultural institutions are concerned with providing information about facilities, services, and programs, as well as encouraging community involvement. Areas of work include press relations, speaker's bureaus, and alumni relations. Fund raising is a critical function. Pamphlets, letters, brochures, special events, and TV and print advertising are all employed.
Public Relations Firms
O'Dwyer's 1980 Directory of Public Relations Firms (New York: J. R. O'Dwyer Co. Inc., 1980) lists over 900 public relations firms, with new listings added annually. The size of the staff can grow from a handful of people to many hundreds. Consulting firms or agencies also vary in the scope of their services: some give full service; others specialize in specific areas, such as consumer affairs, government relations, investor relations, etc.
Future Skill Demands in PR
Although most of the examples and descriptions offered in this book are drawn from private enterprise, which has established a clear, formal structure for the performance of PR functions, many other organizations also have publics, and these publics are often larger than those of the typical corporation. Fund raising and member relations, for example, are PR specialties. The principles and techniques are the same, but it's interesting to see from the skills that follow the many areas where, as a PR person, you could perform your work, and the different forms taken by public relations in each.
Since one of the basic tasks of PR is to anticipate changes in public thinking, opinion sampling and research will become more important, whether inside staff or outside consultants are used.
Not only will investigatory or research skills be sharpened, but also how to link the research to management goals and objectives, and how to translate the results into clear language that is relevant to the needs of the policy makers.
Communications skills will never be more important, especially in an age when true mastery of the language is becoming less and less common and more and more valuable; speaking and writing effectively and clearly will be at a high premium. In this day of constant media and person-to-person encounters with consumers, stockholders, and other groups, the ability to speak well acquires a new emphasis and requires expertise in language and sensitivity to the dynamics of face- to-face communication.
An ongoing awareness of the big picture, the world outside and beyond the organization's immediate sphere of influence, will be intrinsic to the successful performance of public relations work. It is from this larger world that issues and trends, which can seriously affect the organization, emerge.
Finally, evaluation of PR efforts will be given new attention. Because PR deals in ideas rather than in tangible units, assessing its progress has always been difficult. PR people, in keeping with their new importance, will have to devise more specific yardsticks to measure the cost of their efforts against the results.