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Unlocking the mystery of public relations

Presentation by Dennis Rutzou to The Institute of Independent Business National Workshop on Tuesday, 13 November 2007.

It is sometimes said that if you had ten people in a room and you asked them to write down what they thought public relations is, they could all write down something different and all be correct.

Part of the mystery comes from the fact that most people who profess to have some understanding believe that the PR role is solely concerned with generating media coverage, or at least managing the media and although this is part of the job, PR goes much further than this.

In truth, we are really planners and strategists, which could sound boring but isn't.

So let me define what public relations actually is, and to add to the confusion there are many definitions, some of which that are rather long and convoluted.

I tend to go for those that are the simplest.

One example is that 'PR is about communicating to achieve understanding through knowledge'.

Another, which is in widespread use and generally accepted by the major professional bodies such as the Public Relations Institute of Australia and the Institute of Public Relations in the United Kingdom is:

Public relations practice is the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its public.

However, the one that I prefer and which is printed on the back of our business card is: 'Public relations is the management discipline of communication'.

The background story on why we use this definition on our business cards is that when my son Gavin was a small boy and started going to school, they had a 'show and tell' session at which they had to stand up an describe what their fathers did for living. This is an easy chore for the son of a butcher, baker or plumber, but not for the son of a public relations consultant so I had to furnish Gavin with a simple explanation, which he used quite happily at 'show and tell'. All the five year olds thought that sounded fair enough, which supports my contention that five years olds are smarter than business executives.

For those of you are well over five, the simple explanation is that public relations is a professional approach to communication. In other words it is someone sitting in their management chair analytically looking at the communication processes of the business.

Perhaps the easiest way to unlock the mystery of public relations is to talk you through the steps we take in developing a PR plan.

Building on the 'discipline' aspect of our definition of public relations, there are some basic building blocks that must be used to develop a PR plan.

This is an essential starting point that you will need to undertake to 'win the PR battle'. Different practitioners may use different terms, but the intention is the same.

The steps that I use are:

1. Set out the objectives:

What are the PR activities designed to achieve? These objectives must be realistic and achievable. In my case, as a PR consultant, the objectives must be mutually agreed. The client has to agree that those are the communication objectives that the organisation wishes to achieve and the consultant has to agree that it is a feasible expectation and that they can achieve the objectives. It is also normal for the objectives to be recast at defined periods, as the objectives are achieved, changes occur in the communication requirements, or the priorities alter.

2. Define the target audiences:

In public relations terminology this is known as defining the 'publics'. What are the target groups that need to be influenced to achieve the objectives? With whom does the organisation need to establish and maintain harmonious communication?

Target audiences could include:
The general public, or consumers – It is likely that this would be further subdivided by either by geographic location, socio-economics, age, etc;

Business community – This can be a key public, depending on the organisation and the industry in which they are involved;

Local community – Those who live in the local community where the organisation is located, or where branches are located, are often an overlooked target public, but are an extremely important public with specific communication needs;

Employees – This public has a very important connection to the organisation and could go further to include family of employees;

Government – Federal, State and Local Government, Government Departments and instrumentalities, including elected members and public servants, can be a vitally important public for many organisations;

Media – ranging from daily newspapers, specialist media targeting business, magazines, radio, television, local media in the areas offices or branches are located, professional and trade publications. Online newsletters and blogs are also becoming increasingly important. The media can both be a public that should be influenced, as well as conduit to carry messages to other publics, which makes the media doubly important.

3. Set out the public relations activities:

The next step in developing a PR plan is identifying the public relations activities, or the means of communication that can be implemented, which have the potential to influence the target publics to achieve the objectives.

This is the action part of the PR plan.

The 'action' part of the PR activities can include all those things that can be done to get your message across. The problem usually is that organisations often do some of these things, but with a lack of consistency, either by way of message or frequency.

I have often come across organisations that have had their executives trained in media interview technique, but without a PR program to generate the media coverage opportunities, or develop the messages that they will need to consistently project information about the organisation or the issues, that training could be a waste of time.

The means of communication should also carry a consistent message, because consistency and repetition is a very important part of the process.

The activities that are undertaken depend on the defined publics and they can include research, printed information such as the annual report, brochures, newsletters, flyers, books, leaflets on the issues, the website, advertising, media coverage preparation, media coverage activities, using products or services for 'contra', such as media competition prizes, public speaking, participation in exhibitions, seminars, conferences, public meetings, sponsorship, scholarships and awards, political involvement, media surveillance, issues and crisis management and so on, depending on the circumstances.

In the PR activities section, I usually include positioning and strategy, as two important planning steps.

Positioning:

By positioning, I refer to how management wants the organisation to be regarded, in a corporate and marketing sense. This is also likely to entail a comparison with other competitive organisations to evaluate how you compare. Another aspect of this step is to use the exercise to develop the credible core messages that can be used to describe the organisation in messages to the target publics.

This can be an extremely important step, because effective communication is achieved by the repetition of credible core messages and it is a truism to say that the extent of the repetition that is required is invariably underestimated.

This is a natural misconception as both the client and consultant have a distorted view of the extent of the communication as they see all advertising, media releases, newspaper clippings, proofs and copies of printed material and so on. It is sometimes said that you 'have to tell 'em, tell 'em you've told 'em and then tell 'em again'.

Surprisingly, the quality of the message and the need to work to refine it to get it right, is in my opinion often an overlooked area of public relations.

The old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity is bunkum and there are many recent examples that serve to refute this phrase. I remember in the dying days of Ansett Airlines that they had huge amounts of publicity that really didn't do them much good.

Strategy:

At the outset, it will be necessary to develop an agreed overall strategy to govern the timing, direction and content of the PR activities.

This strategy will need to be developed in accordance with other management planning for the organisation, such as the marketing strategy.

Usually the PR strategy looks at how the media coverage activities will be integrated within the overall program. The reason for this is that pro-active media coverage is usually an aspect of most organisations that is not well done and therefore comes in for specific attention at the planning stage.

There is often a danger of a public relations campaign becoming bogged down with technique, rather than content. Therefore, I believe that a great deal of initial thought should be put into developing the content of the messages, rather than, for example, seeking media coverage for the sake of it.

Research:

As well as positioning and strategy, research has an important role to play in a planned public relations program and can be used in a number of different ways, depending on the requirements.

As public relations can be described as 'talking to your publics', research can provide part of the vitally important listening function, in an organised way.

Research can also be used as a means of assessing the success of a public relations program by measuring the attitudes that are held by specific 'publics' before the activity is commenced and then re-measuring at a later date to assess the changes that have been achieved.

As a preparation step, research is vitally important to build background, sometimes to make a subject come alive by highlighting a problem, or problems, a potential benefit to the nation and so on. This can sometimes be done by secondary desktop research to obtain information from other sources, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This information can later be used in articles, media releases, publications and so on.

Another important way that research can be undertaken in a PR program is what we call 'news catalyst research'. In other words, 'headline hunting' by using research to create news coverage opportunities to lift the profile of an organisation and achieve knowledge and understanding of the issues.

If you analytically study your daily newspapers, particularly the Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly and the business sections of the dailies and Sunday newspapers, you will see examples of 'news catalyst' research every day of the week, ranging from salary surveys by the recruiters, the ANZ jobs index, which is a measurement of employment advertising, the state of business confidence by the business groups, the small business survey sponsored by Yellow Pages, corporate travel sponsored by American Express and so on.

We have successfully undertaken news catalyst research on behalf of a number of our clients over the years and it is an excellent means of raising the corporate profile of an organisation, particularly when it is focused on an issue of widespread news value.

A survey we did on behalf of a risk insurance company a few years ago, which on our assessment was used on breakfast radio news by every radio station in Australia. We had targeted breakfast radio and secondly drivetime radio, as these are the times that business people listen to the radio.

The subject of our research was to measure what 'sickies' were costing Australia each year and tied back to a marketing initiative to launch a new form of insurance called group salary continuance, which is income protection insurance, but paid for by the employer for the employees.

The annual cost of 'sickies' to Australia, based on our survey is $15 billion a year and clearly this is a hot news topic, particularly as the story was released at the start of winter, when people were starting to contract those chills and sniffles.

As a result we organised numerous media interviews for our client, in addition to the earlier radio news spots. These were mostly on radio, which was out target to reach a business audience. As a result of the news catalyst research we were able to take a very dry topic and make it newsworthy just by undertaking some fairly basic and inexpensive research.

Communications audit

Another tool of a public relations professional is the communication audit which is a form of research often done at the commencement of the PR program and is often repeated after a period to check results.

As the name implies, it is an audit of the effectiveness of the communication activities undertaken by the organisation and can include research of the knowledge or attitudes by the publics towards the organisation or particular issues.

A communications audit can be an excellent way of building information, prior to work commencing and as such, the information gained can help define priorities and direction.

Media coverage preparation

Although I said earlier that media coverage was not the only tactic used in public relations, it still remains the majority of work we undertake for our clients.

The first step in obtaining media coverage is preparation. As well as working to refine the messages, there is also a need for preparation, such as training in media interview technique, personal image coaching so that you look the part, even speech training to ensure that people fully understand what you say.

As a result of the public relations activities, spokespersons of the organisation may be required to appear on television and radio, and therefore should be trained in media interview technique. This can go further and include personal image coaching on personal appearance, clothing, hair style, choice of the right glasses, if they wear them, personal spoken communication, if required.

This training can and even include instruction from trained actors on body language, how to enter and exit the stage, and so on.

These are vitally important preparation stages, as without these skills, the means of effectively communicating the message will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

It is extremely important to be able to utilise all the 'tricks of the trade' to make the most of any opportunities to appear on the powerful electronic media.

The media training sessions are also tremendous preparation in public speaking technique and although training can be undertaken immediately prior to television and radio interviews that have been arranged, my preference is that it should be done at an early stage of the PR program.

As well as training on how to look and speak, media training focuses on what to say, what not to say and how to say it. It's vital for spokespersons to practice answering those tricky and potentially controversial questions journalists love to ask and be prepared with the organisation's key messages.

This aspect of being prepared means that media training is also a vital component of 'Issues management/Crisis management planning' which I will cover later.

There will also be an ongoing need to foster goodwill and understanding between the organisation and key journalists, particularly those who regularly write or broadcast on topics associated with the overall subject in which the organisation is involved.

Meetings with key journalists need not necessarily be grand affairs, but simply the opportunity to meet and talk over a cup of coffee, or a light lunch, so that a relationship can be developed and sustained.

Serious journalists welcome these discussions as a means of gaining background knowledge and acquiring useful contacts for the future. If the journalist is looking for a comment from an industry leader he or she is most likely to call their contacts.

The building of relationships with key journalists is an important element that is often overlooked in a PR program.

Media coverage activities

Australians are served by a greater number of media alternatives than any people on the planet.

We have more newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, professional and trade magazines and newsletters than anyone else.

The small reduction in the number of newspapers in recent years has been more than offset by more magazines and a proliferation of Internet sites.

Every suburb has at least one, or more local newspapers and on the last count that I made, there were more than 1,000 professional and trade publications throughout the country.

In media coverage terms, inside a planned PR program, this volume of media alternatives, spells opportunity. There are simply so many different options that you have to get your message across. But it doesn't happen by accident. The media is not constantly working to seek out your message. You have to tell them in a form that they can readily use.

The usual means of presenting a story to the media is through a media release, which is a news story, written in a form that is readily usable by the media, without alteration.

Such a story is usually written in a format, known as the four 'Ws' and 'How'. In other words, the story has to cover the questions of 'why', 'what', 'where', 'when' and 'how' in the first paragraph or two, so that the story is cuttable from the end.

Media releases for radio and television are usually slightly different to print, and for radio, with the exception of radio news, which is read, or includes short pieces of audio interviews, they really want a 'talking head' someone to interview to bring the story alive.

Clearly your 'talking head' must be able to handle the situation easily, because of the work that has already been done in refining the message and training in media interview technique.

As well as 'talking heads' from your organisation, you can also use celebrities, or people who are already well known to the public. Obviously, such a person should have some link to your organisation, or a logical reason for publicly representing it. The right 'talking head' can provide you with an important new dimension to help get your message across.

You can even involve them in an all states 'talking head' tour, during which you undertake media interviews, speaking engagements, etc, in all capital cities.

This technique can also be used in country regions, where a big name can dominate the news for the time they are in town.

In addition to the ubiquitous media release, other techniques that can be used to get your message over the media includes articles, media kits, including good news photographs, advertorial features, video news releases and media conferences.

Good photographs are extremely important as they can help secure publication.

We live in a society that is infatuated by newness. We are always seeking out the latest. 'New is news' is a phrase that I use to summarise the news value of a new product, new service, new building, etc. 'New is news' is one of the most enduring cliches in public relations which recognises that newness is a promotional advantage, while the product, event or situation is new and exciting.

It is always our intention on behalf of our clients, to fully utilise this attribute of 'new is news'.

Video News Releases for television can be used to generate news coverage, particularly for television news and to support interview opportunities.

Media conferences are an important technique to get a big news story across, particularly in a tight time scale, but great care should be taken to ensure that it is a big story, otherwise there is a danger that you could be staging a party to which no one comes.

In many respects a public relations consultancy acts as a translator, taking information from the client and presenting it in a format acceptable to the market and the media.

Perhaps the major misconception, which is made regarding media coverage activities, is to underestimate the volume that is required to change attitudes.

Advertising

A question I am often asked is what is the difference between advertising and public relations.

The more correct comparison is between advertising and media coverage.

Advertising is simply a means of communication, in the same way that media coverage can be used to reach a target market. The difference between the two techniques is that, because the space is being paid for, advertising has low credibility, but the advantages are that you totally control the content and can repeat the message at will.

On the other hand, media coverage has high credibility because the message carries the endorsement of the journalist who wrote it and the editor who approved it. But you cannot control the message, or repeat it.

Therefore, a well-balanced communication program should include advertising and media coverage.

It is interesting to reflect that very few good journalists make good advertising copywriters. The crafts are very different. Like the difference between poets and novelists.

From a public relations policy point of view, advertising should be included within public relations, because clearly you need to have a consistency of message.

But from a technique point of view, the creation of advertising, and the related planning aspects, such as budget development and media selection can be a specialised role requiring the services of an advertising specialist, such as an advertising agency.

Issues management/Crisis management plan

Another key area where many public relations professionals spend much of their time is issues and crisis management because there is potential for crisis for all organisations. Some industries, such as the food, alcoholic beverages, airline, oil and the pharmaceutical industries are more vulnerable than others.

Issues management is concerned with identifying the potential issues before they arise, which results in the preparation of a specific crisis management plan. Issues management is a proactive public relations activity.

The potential issues that could effect any organisation could relate to injury or death of a client, customer or employee, which could have been caused by negligence, product contamination or failure, industrial health and safety issues, etc.

Clearly, the media training of corporate spokespersons should form part of crisis management planning, but it should go further and examine the potential for any crisis situation and how it would be handled from an organisational point of view.

Media surveillance

No public relations program would be complete without media surveillance which is a vital part of the two-way communication process.

It should help pinpoint the media which is actively covering the areas in which the organisation is involved, or wants to be involved, trace published media releases, articles and news coverage initiatives, as well as target media that has potential for running news information about the organisation and its products.

Media surveillance should not be used as the means of justifying the public relations effort - it is a vital and ongoing source of commercial intelligence.

Our consultancy operates a media surveillance service on behalf of each client, which includes reading a wide selection of interstate newspapers, magazines and trade media, as well as using an online tracking service which we access each day.

If required, we can obtain audio tapes or transcripts of radio and television coverage.

Budget

Now you are probably wondering how much all of this costs. Most PR costs tend to be set by the amount of work to be done, either by the salary bill and overhead costs of the PR Department, or the fees to the consultancy, which are also usually based on time spent. Expenses are incurred for costs like printing, video production, etc.

In our case, we make a forward estimate of the level of the professional fee that is required according to the agreed PR program. This means that both client and consultancy know in advance the level of the budget and can plan accordingly.

As it is based on volume, the PR budget can be anything you want it to be, but obviously it has to be able to sustain sufficient volume to achieve the objectives.

Evaluation

Since the PR program is designed to achieve defined objectives, achievement of the objectives should be regarded as an effective measurement of success.

However, as mentioned earlier, concurrently with this, research can be undertaken to determine attitudinal change by key 'publics', involving pre and post testing of their attitude to key elements of the program.

The silliest method that I know of for measuring PR success, which seems to be raised from time to time, is measurement of the media coverage that is achieved, whether it be by column centimetres, for newspapers and magazines, or time in the case of radio and television.

This coverage volume is then multiplied by the advertising rate for such space or time and the total used to justify the cost of the PR program.

It is like comparing oranges with apples. As I explained earlier, advertising and media coverage are different. You can't buy news space, so any such comparison has got to be utterly misleading and based on a completely false premise.

Benefits

The benefits produced by a well planned and executed public relations program can be many and varied.

It can achieve a higher public profile for the organisation, or the cause it represents, increased sales, increased value of the organisation, new funding options, improved employee relations and so on.

It can sometimes produce unexpected benefits, such as other organisations that want to do a deal with you, as a result of the increase in public profile.

One side effect, that I have sometimes encountered is that the Chief Executive is head hunted by another organisation, as a result of his higher profile as the media spokesperson for the organisation, and sometimes in an industry segment in which there are few other spokespersons, they could finish up as the spokesperson for the industry.

History of public relations?

Most people wrongly assume that public relations is a relatively recent development.

The origins and what we regard today as modern public relations practice started in the United States at the turn of the last century, around 1901.

George Westinghouse established a PR office within his organisation in the 1880s.

However, the man who is regarded as the father of public relations is Ivy Lee Junior, an ex-journalist who worked with Grover Cleveland during his three Presidential campaigns as an ideas man and speechwriter.

He gained wider public recognition by working with Standard Oil and the Rockefellers particularly during their strike breaking activities for their Colorado oilfields investments.

This is part of a fascinating story, which I read recently in a book called Titan, The Life of John D Rockefeller Senior by Ron Chernow. This is a major hard cover work of 676 pages and if you are interested in getting hold of copy it is published by Random House, New York and retails for $62.95.

I found the relatively brief mention of the work for the Rockefellers by Ivy Lee Jnr, is particularly fascinating.

Although John D Rockefeller Senior was born in 1839 and died in 1937, many of the implications of his work are still around today, particularly in the business legislation to kerb some of the more unscrupulous practices of Standard Oil.

But at nearly 700 pages, you will need a journey longer than a flight from Sydney to Melbourne to digest it.

In Lee's time there were numerous press agents. The concept of 'paid for editorial' was also well known, but lacked credibility then as it does today.

The involvement in changing the strategy of the organisation was a key aspect that set apart from his competitors and why he is regarded today as the 'father of public relations'.

One particular action that Lee undertook in 1906 in his role for management during a coal strike, which set him apart from his competitors, has become known as 'Lee's declaration of principles'.

The declaration, which was sent to editors stated:

'This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply proper news. This is not an advertising agency; if you think any of our matter ought properly to go to your business office, do not use it. Our matter is accurate. Further details on any subject treated will be supplied promptly, and any editor will be assisted most cheerfully in verifying directly any statement of fact… In brief, our plan is, frankly and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about'.

That declaration is still valid today and it is a shame that many people in public relations appear to have moved away from these simple principles.

The social reason why public relations started and flourished in the United States, is that they had the first educated middle class in the world.

It was this middle class that needed information on which to base decisions, whether it was on politics, legal change, or the brand of soap that they purchased.

Public relations in Australia

In Australia, public relations started developing in the 1940s after the Second World War, in fact many of the early practitioners came out of wartime Government Departments where they had undertaken public information roles.

Journalism was still the main recruiting ground for most PR people, partly because PR success was seen as being directly proportional to the volume of column inches that were generated.

However, this all changed in the 1970s with the introduction of degree courses in public relations. The first commenced at what was then Mitchell College, Bathurst, now the Mitchell Campus of Charles Sturt University.

Graduates from these courses have been widely accepted throughout Australia and throughout world, which is a reflection of the level of training and the syllabus.

The professional body of public relations profession in Australia is the Public Relations Institute of Australia, which is divided into State Chapters. This organisation is involved in a number of different ways, from overseeing the ethical standards, educational aspects, arranging conferences and seminars and also presiding over the recognition of professional qualifications, which today are based on competition of the appropriate tertiary courses.

The professional qualifications of PRIA members also act as a protection for clients and organisations as it sets the minimum standard that practitioners have to reach to be recognised. There is also a Code of Ethics, as part of the upholding of standards.

There is also a professional body for consultancies, known as the Registered Consultants Group, which was established under the auspices of the Public Relations Institute of Australia. To be eligible for membership, the consultancy principal must be a Member or Fellow of the PRIA.

The role of the RCG is to improve consultancy practice and member consultancies must also conform to a Code of Practice.

Propaganda versus public relations

An area of confusion to many people is the difference between propaganda and public relations. Some even believe that the terms are interchangeable.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines propaganda as the systematic propagation of a given doctrine. Indeed the word is derived from a Committee of Cardinals, which was established in 1622 for the propagation of the faith.

However, in the way that we understand the term today, particularly in the aftermath of the Nazis and the propaganda of Dr Goebells, we know that for propaganda to be successful you have to be in charge of all the means of communication.

Clearly, this is impossible in the freedom of communications under which we live today and even more so with the increasing impact of the Internet and blogs.

So, propaganda and public relations are really opposites. Propaganda needs total control to be successful, while public relations needs freedom to flourish.

PR programs can go wrong

I don't want to give the misleading impression that all you have to do is do the PR planning and implement the PR program and everything will go right.

PR programs can go wrong. They can produce undesirable results that were not anticipated.

All PR people are not saints. We have our fair share of no hoper's and incompetents as any other field of human endeavour.

In my experience, the main reasons for the failure of a PR program, is either lack of resources, particularly a lack of budget. But on the other hand, PR is not unique by being difficult to achieve success if there is insufficient finance.

The major reason for failure is lack of commitment. We say that for a PR program to succeed it needs the three Cs. Commitment, commitment, Commitment by both client and consultant.

PR is not a soft option. It demands effort and determination for success. I hope that the information I have relayed to you this morning has helped 'Unlock the mystery of public relations'. I am delighted to have had the opportunity of speaking with you.

Let me return to the major points of my address:

  • Public relations is all about planning and strategy.
  • It can best be defined as 'the management discipline of communication'.

So with the right approach to planning and strategy and an innovative flair, there is no reason why you cannot develop and implement that PR program to 'win the PR battle'.

***
Dennis Rutzou Public Relations Pty., Ltd
Suite 21
'Chatswood Village'
47 Neridah Street Chatswood 2067
Phone: (02) 9413 4244
Fax: (02) 9413 4263
Email: greatpr@drpr.com.au

Dennis Rutzou mobile: 0411 510 888



 
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