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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
A question I am often asked is what is the difference between advertising and
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
If required, we can obtain audio tapes or transcripts of radio and television
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
47 Neridah Street
Phone: (02) 9413 4244
Fax: (02) 9413 4263
Dennis Rutzou mobile: 0411 510 888