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Public Relations Seeks New Brand of Self Image (originally published in the Houston Business Journal on March 12, 2004)

Having the profession I represent attacked almost daily for supposedly being responsible for so much of what is wrong in our lives is bad enough.

Everything from Janet Jackson''s flesh flash and Howard Dean''s self-destruction to the dispute over where Steve Francis really was on Super Bowl Sunday and the Bush administration''s hunt for weapons of mass destruction have been blamed on public relations.

Even the "break-up" of Ken and Barbie warranted an angry letter to the editor blasting public relations.

But having the Dilbert character, "Dogbert," pose as an evil public relations consultant really curled my tie. Dogbert advised his client -- who had introduced a product that killed its users -- to lie and cover up.

Dogbert convinced me once and for all that few outside the public relations profession really understand what we do for a living.

The dictionary''s definition of public relations, "the efforts of a corporation to promote goodwill between itself and the public," lacks substance and depth. It excludes the large number of us who do not work for corporations.

Moreover, the term "public," means little in today''s fractured world. I suppose it is intended to mean the general public, but most public relations efforts target narrowly defined groups of people who happen to have similar interests or concerns.

For some professions, a single word provides an easy-to-visualize picture of what a person does. For a doctor, it might be "healer." For a lawyer, it might be "defender." But what word would we choose to define the public relations profession?

Unfortunately, the word that may have popped into many minds is "spinner," as if our value is in deftly twisting the facts and subtly diverting attention to something else after a public misstep.

The definition I most often use is that we work to align the interests of an organization with its various stakeholders. However, depending on the public relations person you ask, you might hear that our job is to do any or all of the following:

  • Educate the public about causes and prevention of illness and disease.
  • Cultivate and support a free and open society by serving as credible, reliable resources for the media and others who disseminate information to the public.
  • Enhance brands visually and verbally and by action.
  • Help restore public confidence in all institutions by helping those institutions operate with openness, honesty and integrity.

To some extent, it is the fault of the profession itself -- and of those in some organizations -- that the value of the public relations discipline in an organization is neither apparent nor understood.

The public relations profession has done a poor job of communicating the value we bring to an organization. While public relations -- like advertising -- can build awareness, increase understanding and change behaviors, many CEOs remain skeptical about PR''s ability to have a meaningful impact on the bottom line. Because we have no "elevator speech" to explain what we do, we leave it to others to define us.

Some younger public relations people have difficulty relating what we do to an organization''s overall mission. They do not understand what the organization''s brand stands for, how it got that way and how marketers strategically intend to strengthen it over time.

And other public relations practitioners work with the deck stacked against them, reporting to legal counsel or bundled with the human resources department. Both structures seem designed to muffle creative solutions and distance the role of public relations in organizational branding.

A goal of the Houston chapter of the Public Relations Society of America is to continue to demystify the profession and our professional brand.

We must study and celebrate the many examples of public relations professionals who already have established their worth by stressing research and results.

We must constantly explain what we do and how effective it is to an organization''s overall mission.

We can''t shy away from those who demand that public relations contribute to the bottom line, so we will push for PR-only programs and illustrate the impact of reputation on customer purchasing decisions.

Just as important, we will encourage life-long learning because public relations practitioners need industry-specific knowledge and management skills to be able to build the personal relationships with an organization''s executive team needed to sit comfortably in the boardroom.

Those already at the decision-making table must serve as the conscience of their organization, reminding CEOs of how any given action might play on Main Street, Wall Street and at the corner pub.

Ultimately, the public relations brand is being built upon the great work of our best practitioners -- men and women who are passionate advocates, empathetic listeners and keen communications strategists.

With their help, organizations are regaining trust, strengthening community ties and intensifying customer loyalty.

Following their lead, the public relations profession will continue to differentiate -- and distance -- itself from those who seek to deceive and obfuscate.

Dan Keeney is the president of the Houston chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and president of DPK Public Relations.

Dan Keeney
(832) 467-2904
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Author: Dan Keeney
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