Public Relations: Perception Predicament

There is no end to the irony of the situation: Public Relations has an image problem.

Negative portrayals in the media (i.e. Entourage, Spin city– no offense to Michael J. Fox, yes offense to Charlie Sheen) and misrepresentation contribute strongly to this problem. Public Relations is primarily associated with public scandals and corporate emergencies, leading to a warped perception of the field in general. According to W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry J. Holladay in their book “Does Society Need Public Relations?”, the 6 major themes of PR criticism are:

  1. The public is ignorant of public relations because they are ignorant of what is really going on in the world
  2. PR can never escape its “wicked roots”– think propaganda and WWII
  3. PR is to blame for the power of large companies and more sinister organizations. This comes from a rise in distrust of big corporations– i.e. tobacco companies, Enron
  4. PR is undemocratic because only rich companies can hire PR– blatantly false! Much PR is done pro bono or for non-profit organizations
  5. Society must teach people how to resist the power of PR– while I won’t argue with the benefits of teaching a basic understanding of the media, there is truly nothing to combat about PR. It promotes open discussion; it does not brainwash publics into a singular belief.
  6. PR is only publicity

I would add to these themes that many people are frightened of PR. Often used in comparison to Advertising, the simple fact that while people can actively recognize an advertisement, they cannot always recognize an act of Public Relations. This fosters an idea that PR has some nefarious master-plan to plant subliminal messages in the minds of the masses.

But perhaps more than a fear, the public simply does not understand what Public Relations is. As mentioned in the themes, most individuals assume that PR is all publicity. The press-agentry model is most often discussed in the media, conjuring up images of P.T. Barnum and his sensationalized circus. But PR is so much more than publicity and press coverage. Most people fail to understand the scope of PR.

Since my very first classes in the subjects, my professors have insisted on one particular definition of the word. Public relations is a “management function that establishes mutually beneficial relationships.” To expand upon this, PR is about promoting positive interests and feelings. It involves managing and counseling. Rather than telling the public what to think, PR encourages the free flow of information. There are no devious or underhanded attempts to exploit the naivety of a group. PR specialists believe that the public should be critical thinkers, not mindless drones. I’ve always been taught to encourage the “human component” of PR– we want to push people to think, not implant our own thoughts and opinions.

For a number reasons–the economy, interest in social networking and media– Public Relations is gaining popularity. Even in comparison to advertising, many companies and individuals have embraced the effectiveness and cost efficiency of PR. Because of this increased usage, I feel it is even more important than ever for individuals to understand what PR truly is about. I hope this article clears things up a bit, or at least makes you pause in reflection.

So what do you think? Will PR always get a bad rap?

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Arthur Conan Doyle & Self-Promotion

My latest reading ventures have led me into the pages of the biography “The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle” by Russell Miller. As a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, I know just about everything about the wonderous fictional character that Conan Doyle created (including the author’s own disdain for Mr. Holmes). In more recent years, especially after reading the novel “George and Arthur” by Julian Barnes, I’ve become fascinated with the man behind the world’s greatest (and only) consulting detective.

Arthur Conan Doyle is a character in his own right, and his own life story is more than worthy of the pages of a bestseller. Reading this biography is nearly as thrilling as reading one of the Holmes and Watson stories. As I’ve been reading, I’ve learned a lot about the man as both an individual and an author. I’ve also been reminded of several things I already knew–for instance, Conan Doyle was a doctor who, after a less than successful ophthalmology practice, decided he was more passionate about writing and was rightfully convinced that he could make a living from it. And yet, even before he opened his eye doctor practice, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began his first practice outside of London with seemingly similar success–at least at first. He advertised his services as a general practitioner, but the client flow was slow, and Dr. Doyle soon turned to some interesting techniques in an attempt to draw clientele.

Reading this biography through the eyes of a PR major, I was quite impressed with Conan Doyle’s own self-promotion. The relatively poor young doctor begin by taking out a small ad in the local paper:

“…curiously in the ‘Miscellaneous Wants’ column, announcing: ‘Dr. Doyle begs to notify that he has removed to 1, Bush Villas, Elm Grove, next to the Bush Hotel.’ The wording was crafty, implying that he had transferred his practice from some other location.”
Undoubtably Dr. Doyle had a way with words in his novels and short stories, but I was surprised (and impressed) to find that his brilliance even extended as far as self-promotion. His cleverly worded “ad” would make PR practitioners of today proud. Wording is everything, and Conan Doyle clearly knew how to position his message to the proper audience. By thinking of him as an established doctor, people would be more willing to consult him.

The next little bit of publicity that impressed me took place that same year, as he worked hard to get his small practice off the ground:

“After a riding accident outside his front door in November 1882, he sent [his brother] off to the Portsmouth Evening News with a report which it obligingly published: ‘An accident, which might have led to serious consequences, occurred this afternoon in Elm-grove as Mr Robinson, of Victoria-road, was riding in front of the Bush Hotel, his stirrup leather snapped, and he was thrown to the ground, the animal rearing at the same time and falling partially upon him. He was conveyed to the house of Dr Conan Doyle, of Bush Villas, and that gentleman was able to pronounce that, though considerably shaken and bruised, there was no injury of any consequence.'”

Conan Doyle’s little story runs like a modern-day press release, while working to get him some much-needed publicity.

Of course, all through his life Conan Doyle showed a distinct ability to relate to his audience, making him a beloved and personable national treasure. These are just two examples that truly jumped off the page at me as I read about this marvelously interesting man. It just goes to show that even one of Britain’s greatest writers was not above a bit of self-promotion. I can’t wait to read on and find out more about the man, and I highly suggest that if you have any interest in either Sherlock Holmes or the man who created him, pick up a copy of Russell Miller’s “The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle,” from which I quoted in this blog.