Care and Feeding of Public Relations Counsel
Today companies are finding that if they are to survive, public relations has to be more than just press agentry or product publicity. It is becoming an increasingly important communications tool for explaining the firm to its many publics and explaining those publics to management.
Recent concern over an organization's promotional return on investment; increased attention on consumer protection (consumers of all industries); and drastic, sometimes violent, socio-economic changes have forced management to be alert and responsive to the public's attitudes and problems. In addition, whether because they are becoming enlightened or are learning through bitter experience, management is finding that ideas and concepts can't be sold in the same way as products. Finally, businesses no longer operate in ivory towers. They are being held accountable for their actions by the Government employees shareholders customers and the general public.
Added to this is the fact that companies, organizations, and institutions are growing more complex. Each is finding they need specialists to accomplish the organization's overall goals and objectives specialists in finance, production, research, marketing, and sales. The growing list of problems and their complexity also emphasizes the need for public relations experts and counsel.
Many of the problems companies face today have been brought about by the simple fact that outsiders don't understand or don't agree with the firm's policies and objectives. Person-to-person and mass communications are so complex that specialists are needed to coordinate and handle this area. In addition, management needs outside, but friendly inputs, to assist in molding decisions and corporate direction.
To achieve a firm's communications objectives, there are two alternatives, and ideally, a third. First, management can have an internal staff of public relations people. Second, they can retain professional outside counsel just as they retain legal, accounting, or marketing counsel. Finally, the larger, healthier organization can have the proper mixture of an internal and external public relations staff.
While many of my corporate peers may disagree with me, I feel a company can best be served by an external organization or by a combination of internal and external organizations. An outside organization is more effective for management, since there is usually a greater sense of urgency to accomplish public relations goals than there is internally. In addition, outside counsel is usually more objective, so its word carries more weight. This is because the public relations agency is selling a service. Therefore, their performance is usually reviewed more often and more critically than that of an internal corporate public relations staff.
Historically, public relations counsel has usually been brought in as an auxiliary force of specialists. This is similar to the fire department that is only called when you smell smoke. By that time, the problem has already developed, and the most anyone can do is help make the best of a bad thing.
More and more PR agencies are operating on a six-month or yearly contract and retainer-plus-expenses basis. In this way, they aren't limited to isolated instances. They become a part of the client's life and share all of the functions of public relations from planning to execution. As a result, public relations counsel can more effectively give the comprehensive service they were originally designed to provide.
What Can Public Relations Counsel Do?
As never before, the onus of proof is on management to explain its motives, achievements, and contributions to its many publics who directly determine its success or failure. Intelligent public relations efforts help management to fulfill the public's need to know. In addition, they help make the public more receptive to the firm's products and give services as well as an advance impression of the organization and its objectives.
In addition to the important task of keeping management in touch with the public, PR has four major functions:
- Determine what the public needs to know regarding the firm's issues or situations
- Develop programs to win public support
- Effectively carry out these programs
- Measure program results and changes in public attitudes
The key to public relations success to date has been its ability to build and maintain a positive public image for their clients. However, no amount of public relations effort can help poor ideas or products succeed in today's society.
Fortunately, most companies do attempt to put forth good ideas and products, but continue to face problems because of the widening gap between the scientist or engineer and the layman. Most of these experts concentrate totally on their job and don't have the time, inclination, or special abilities to communicate the importance of their tasks or to find out how their work is affecting the public.
Industry can't afford to have this gap widen. Wise management must increasingly use public relations specialists and their abilities in the science of communications in order to meet this problem.
Select the Right Public Relations Counsel
Unlike tangibles, which can be measured in dollars and cents, public relations is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. The only measure is quality and this is always subject to individual interpretation. If management attempts to use quantity as a measure in the form of clippings or whatever, and there is no quality, then the results become meaningless. Quality is always of prime importance.
While measuring a prospective public relations agency is difficult, there are some basic guidelines management can use:
- Before you begin talking with public relations consultants, outline what you hope to accomplish with public relations. Don't firm up all of your objectives, because they can best be effectively developed and carried out with your agency after selection has been made. Since public relations may be relatively new to you, listen to the consultant's advice and form objectives and programs jointly.
- Don't see more than three agencies. As you interview more and more agencies, selection becomes something akin to buying a new car the more you see, the more they all begin to look the same. One way of narrowing you potential agencies is by talking with members of the press who continually judge public relations material from many firms. when you are making your overall survey, look at agencies of all sizes large agencies, small agencies, and public relations divisions of advertising agencies. All have their distinct advantages. No one organization has a corner on the talent, insight, and capabilities that are just right for you.
- Don't necessarily eliminate an agency from you list just because they don't know your industry. More important, is whether or not they know public relations. If the organization is competent in every other respect, they will quickly learn you business. Professional public relations techniques can be applied to a variety of situations. In addition, you might find that they bring fresh and innovative approaches to your problems which you had overlooked. It should be added though, that there are situation where industry knowledge is necessary.
- Since public relations is a person-to-person type of business, make certain there is good interaction between you people and agency personnel. If the personal chemistry is missing, you may find yourself switching agencies.
- In the members of the public relations agency, look for attributes which sound like Boy Scout rules to live by. Remember, management is asking the consultant to represent the firm to the outside world as well as the outside world to the firm. The five qualities you should look for during your discussions with prospective consultants are:
1. Sound judgment in arriving at decisions
2. Courage to stand by those decisions
3. Integrity in their operation
4. Thoroughness in carrying out projects
5. Objectivity toward the firm and its publics
None of these is easy to evaluate.
Once selection is made request a six-month trial period. This will give you, your organization, and the agency the opportunity to work together so results can materialize. Unfortunately, public relations results generally don't appear overnight. They take time to develop. However, they generally have considerable effect of the organization and its ultimate sale of goods and profitability.
Today, as never before, management is results oriented. Therefore, they have a right to expect public relations to establish, and be willing to be measures against hardheaded objectives. With these objectives, the agency can develop specific plans and programs to assist the organization in arriving at the desire destination. Counsel which cannot or will not establish these goals is unwilling to play the game the way management has to play by objectives. Without objectives, neither the PR consultants nor management will know how they arrived, or if they arrived at all.
Finally, make certain there are periodic reviews between the agency and client. Usually these formal reviews are held monthly, and informal reviews go on continually. This gives all parties an opportunity to see what has been accomplished, what is planned, and to see if corporate direction or goals have changed.
All of these may affect the direction of the program.
Care and Feeding
After management has selected the public relations agency they feel will do the best job for their organization, their task is not completed. In fact, it has just begun. Now management has to care about the public relations program and feed reliable information to the agency so it can do its job effectively. The agency is entitled to be keep abreast of what is going on in the organization and what is being planned for the future. It needs all the facts good and bad so it can operate effectively. It cannot operate in a vacuum.
The best client/agency relationship is one in which the agency is brought in early on the planning, rather than after a decision or direction has been stated. At this point, the agency becomes simply one which executes publicity. In other words, the company is not taking full advantage of all the capabilities available.
Management has to understand that public relations must be objective. Without this objective, continual examination of the company, its policies, and its products, the agency's full worth is not realized. In the final analysis, it is the company, not the agency, which gains or loses public favor. No amount of public relations effort can save a firm from the public's wrath when they are working against the best interests of their publics. Therefore, management should continually discuss plans, programs and ideas with the PR consultants so they can assist by predicting possible public reaction and providing worthwhile alternatives.
Management has to realize that professional public relations counsel serves two masters in fulfilling the public need to know media and management. Honesty has and will continue to be the best policy. Honesty builds confidence between the company and media. By effectively working for both masters, public relations consultants can establish mutual respect by telling the truth, thus preventing speculation and insuring that management has the opportunity to be heard.
Finally, remember that public relations is a combination of science and art. Some projects will go awry despite the best efforts of your public relations counsel. Articles can be cut by editors, cutlines can be switched, stories can be held over or dumped entirely. Sometimes situations arise that neither you nor your counsel could anticipate. But, at the end of the year the pluses and minuses should balance so the firm's objectives are achieved.
The day of the public relations counsel being a glorified press agency has long since disappeared. Organizations with only that capability are of no assistance to modern, progressive firms. Today, professional PR firms combine psychology, sociology, economics, and communications into a powerful, effective link between management and its publics.
Management will find that outside counsel is able to maintain the one very necessary ingredient objectivity. In addition, they are not mired down by internal politics or routine, minor tasks. Instead, they are in a position to recommend moves aimed directly at improving the organization's public relations without being overly influenced by the fear of holding a job. Since the agency is not dependent on one client, they can afford to make what they believe is the best recommendation. They may lose a client, but it is still only one client.
Once an organization determines that they need outside public relations assistance, selection is extremely important. But, after the commitment is made, management is still faced with the task of providing more assistance that simply the PR fee-plus-expense. For the firm's agency and program to succeed, they must care for and feed the PR counsel in insure maximum success. Without these ingredients, public relations efforts for the organization are doomed for failure. However, if the care and feeding are provided, the company will receive maximum value for every dollar.
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