It's not column inch counting - it's the management discipline of communication

It's not column inch counting - it's the management discipline of communication

There could be few more comprehensively misrepresented industries than public relations. A legitimate way to work one's way through life, it's been practised for over 100 years now. People graduate from universities with degrees in PR and have done so for more than 20 years in this country, yet still the ill-informed talk of "PR exercises", "publicity stunts" and "free editorial".

The cost effectiveness of PR isn't measured by some calculation of column inches versus its potential value as advertising, as was suggested by Lauraine Sayers recently in Australian Reseller News. Buyers of PR services, whether that be in-house, consultant or the least effective option - the freelance journo for a "one-off" project - need only ask themselves if they've reached their realistic objective. Have you communicated effectively? Does the target public have recall?

"Public Relations is the management discipline of communication" is the definition of PR to which our firm subscribes - I have it printed on the back of my business card. I've been close to the business all my life as the son of a veteran PR practitioner, so I became pretty good at explaining what PR is to the other kids. Counting column inches and assigning dollar values to them can't go anywhere near understanding what a complex business communication has become.

Public relations in the truest sense should probably be described as: "The action of management in controlling the communication process between the organisation and the most important target audiences with whom it should establish and maintain harmonious relations."

Public relations is the "shop window" from which staff, customers, clients and the general public view your company and operations.

Every enterprise needs to acknowledge and use PR. In today's cutthroat business world, public relations can give your company a distinct marketing advantage over the competition. In fact, if the competition is strongly visible in your part of the marketplace, you can be sure they have implemented a successful public relations plan.

In my experience, too often the PR challenges of a company come to the attention of practitioners far later than they should. What should have been a low-key, low-budget program of communication housekeeping can instead become a major exercise in regaining the initiative, or, even worse, damage control.

The old adage - a penny of prevention is worth a pound of cure - applies in public relations as much as anywhere else.

First and foremost, public relations can increase the public's understanding and awareness of your company - its goals and ideals.

Through successful media coverage, PR presents an extremely effective and credible means of communication, as it carries the third-person endorsement of the editor of the publication in which it appears.

However, you do not have total control of the editorial message, as that is the prerogative of the editor or journalist. Hence the need for a pro-active program to build and sustain media relationships.

Advertising is less believable than editorial, but the message can be totally controlled and repeated as many times as the budget will permit. Nevertheless, the advertisement must cut through the "information clutter" and be read, heard or seen, which means that it must trigger a response to be effective. This said, remember that people buy newspapers, watch TV or listen to the radio to be informed and entertained - not to be an advertising target.

A successful public relations campaign is more than just media coverage. Some believe that PR consists of nothing more than publicity and therefore someone who is merely a publicist is adequate for the role. While media coverage is very important, a good public relations plan can do a lot more for your business on many different levels.

In contemplating the role of a public relations consultancy, it is very easy to underestimate the complexity of the task. Effective communication is achieved by the repetition of credible core messages to the target audiences, so by its very nature, a public relations program is an ongoing management discipline.

When preparing a public relations plan, it is vital to define the target audiences that particular messages are designed to reach and influence. It is also important to establish realistic and achievable objectives towards which the public relations activities will be directed.

The PR activities that are to be undertaken to achieve the objectives must be set out and a realistic budget outlined that is compatible with the level of activity that is anticipated.

Public relations is more than media relations. Try considering that it really is about helping clients to communicate with all their audiences, so while the media is an effective way of communicating widely, it lacks a personal touch and opportunities to communicate in detail.

These communication techniques are listed and explained in our current Corporate Profile: Marketing Communication and all that it entails: advertising advice and consulting; employee communication; crisis communication; electronic publishing options (new media); exhibitions and displays; government relations; media skills training; speech writing and presentations; research (the listening part of communicating); print production and a whole range of other devices that can be legitimately included as types of communication.

The creed I learned as a small boy (along with my sisters as we folded what in those days were called "press releases") was that public relations programs should address the likely short- and long-term objectives of the client. Therefore, while the program should be able to offer high levels of media publicity, this activity should always be disciplined and directed towards achieving defined objectives.

The ideas expressed by Lauraine Sayers in the recently published "Cost effectiveness of PR solutions" (Australian Reseller News, June 12) do her no credit whatever. Any journalist worth their salt would have done just a little more to get to grips with the subject, and, as a consequence, would have discovered that with those few ill-chosen words they have managed to alienate an entire industry. Her piece fails the credibility test by any measure. The cost effectiveness of PR can only be assessed on the basis of its ability to reach stated objectives.

My last bit of advice - go rob your local TAB - it'll get you more "press" than you ever dreamed was possible - all in five short minutes.

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