Public relations for businesses: a matter of perspective

Suggest to an owner of a small or mid-sized business that he or she can use public relations as a strategy to support business growth, and the businessperson is likely to demur. “What do I know about getting covered by the news media?” or the owner might say: “I don’t have a clue about how to use social media like Facebook for my business.”

The responses are common, but they often reflect many missed opportunities. That’s because they reflect knowledge only of public relations tactics – certainly, tactics that can be effective tools in a building a reputation for businesses or organizations. But that’s the point: they’re just tools. Understanding how public relations can help your enterprise means, first, understanding how public relations is a matter of perspective.

The beginning of a significant new field

Let’s start at the beginning. In my first post on this blog, I referred to Edward Bernays, who was

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

listed by Life magazine among the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. How was he influential? It started with his relatives.

Bernays was a double nephew of Sigmund Freud. His mother was Freud’s older sister, Anna, and Bernays’ father was the brother of Freud’s wife. Bernays, in fact, was born in Vienna, although his family moved to New York in 1892, when he was just a year old.

Sigmund Freud

After graduating from Yale in 1912, and unsure about what he would do with his life, Bernays traveled to Vienna to spend a few months with “Uncle Siggy.” He gained a firsthand understanding of the work of his uncle, and the principles of the emerging field of psychology. He was confident that the principles of psychology could be applied to many different fields – government, politics, even business.

As World War I approached, Bernays joined others in government in propaganda work to raise support for the United States entry into the war.

After the war, Bernays embarked on his own consulting practice. Since the field was entering – creating, in fact — didn’t have a name, he invented one. In his 1923 book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, he coined the term “public relations.”  In the years that followed, he advised many famous public figures, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a succession of U.S. presidents.

Creating a new opportunity

What is the lesson for today’s business owners? I believe it’s epitomized in one account of how Bernays put his principles into practice. It came near the close of World War II. Although the war had not yet concluded, Americans were beginning to look forward to the day when U.S. soldiers would return home.

Representatives of one of Bernays’ clients, a national booksellers’ association, came to him and said, “Mr. Bernays, soon, millions of Americans will be coming home from the war. We want them to buy books. Is there a way, they asked, that you can help us?” Bernays told them that he would think about it.

Bernays knew that, with so many soldiers returning to the United States, they would be starting families and, eventually, looking for homes.  So, with the booksellers in mind, he approached an association of homebuilders. He talked with them about an anticipated increase in home building, and discussed possible ideas they could make new homes attractive to potential buyers. And one of his suggestions for making home interiors attractive to young families, with a touch of sophistication, was to include built-in bookshelves.

The feature did prove attractive to new homebuyers, and once they purchased their homes, they filled those shelves with lots of new books.

The lesson for business owners isn’t hard to see. In fact, many small businesses and entrepreneurs already follow Bernays’ thinking.

Right in your neighborhood

There’s a small hardware store in my neighborhood where the owner hires students from a nearby private high school to help out in the afternoons, after school. He focuses solely on those students in seeking part-time help for the store. The students greet every customer who comes into the store, asking what the customer is looking for and helping to find the product. The store’s owner doesn’t publicize or advertise this, and he’s been doing it for years.

Other than paying the students for their part-time work, he doesn’t spend a dime – but you can be sure that the parents of those students are not only grateful for the jobs, but if they ever need something from the hardware store they know the first place they’ll stop.

Here’s another example: A local dentist who practices in my area takes a couple of weeks annually to volunteer his services at a mission in Latin America. He provides much-needed dental care to very poor children. Until his first visit, many had never seen a dentist.

When he returns home, he posts pictures of his latest mission trip in his lobby. The display isn’t intrusive, nor does it ask for any donations for the mission. It just offers some information on his volunteer work. Yet patients cannot help but see the photos, and are likely to conclude – and tell their friends – that he’s a caring, committed professional who serves his community, both locally and globally.

The next, final example has not been utilized, but only proposed. But again I believe it illustrates the type of thinking involved in understanding and utilizing public relations.

A few months ago I met a young inventor. He had a pet dog; when a new roommate came to live with him, however, they found that the roommate was allergic to dog hair. Rather than having to choose between the dog and the roommate, the inventor put his knowledge to work and developed a product that reduced the level of dog hair in their house, relieving the roommate’s discomfort.

I asked the inventor how he planned to market the product. He listed some traditional advertising and marketing tactics. For example, it likely would be sold in pet supply stores. “Pet supply stores?” I asked. “Those are for people who already have dogs. It would seem you need to reach those who can’t have dogs because of their allergies”

I suggested he look into providing information on the product directly to allergists, or perhaps in journals read by allergists or through allergists’ conferences. Once they were familiar with the product, I said, if they treated children who couldn’t own dogs because of allergies, the doctors could provide information on the product to the parents. What a great story could be told, I said, if his product made it possible for a child, for the first time, to experience the love and companionship of a dog.

Just change your thinking

As these stories illustrate, public relations can benefit a small business, a health care professional or an individual inventor and entrepreneur. The purpose is to build a trusted reputation among influencers and key audiences. Developing a strong and positive reputation can lead to heightened attention, favorable public opinion and new customers.

A lot of people — especially those who are hiring someone to do their public relations for the first time — think that our business is just about positive press. Make no mistake: sometimes media relations (a classic public relations tactic) are necessary, and, increasingly, utilizing social media or other tactics is necessary.

But, first and foremost, public relations is about the ability to understand the wants, needs, desires and fears of others, and to take authentic action to help the client – in many cases, the business owner — overcome a challenge or take advantage of an opportunity. Sometimes that involves media relations, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s ultimately about building and maintaining trust.

Public relations, therefore doesn’t require a businessperson to think like a reporter, or a news commentator, or like someone who has a large following on social media.

It just requires you to think in a new and different way: to think like a psychologist.

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Seeking public relations counsel: a brief shopper’s guide

We’re quickly approaching the end of the year, when businesses close out projects and assess their progress for 2013. As attention is turning to plans for 2014, many managers will evaluate their public relations, marketing and communications activities, and consider whether to seek the assistance of an outside firm, or, if the results have not been satisfactory, decide to look for a new agency.

Before becoming an independent consultant, I worked for more than 20 years on the “client side,” in corporations and, early in my career, in government. In a variety of situations, my colleagues and I would interview, evaluate and select public relations firms and counselors. Based on that experience, the following are some important factors to consider in your own deliberations:

(Although these tips are written in the context of evaluating public relations and communications firms – e.g., referring to “they” – the suggestions can also apply to evaluating sole practitioners.)

Are they strategic?

There’s probably no more overused word in business today than “strategic,” yet its true meaning is often overlooked; specifically, the ability to plan acourse of action to achieve a goal or objective. The responsibility of a public relations counsel is to chart a public relations strategy that will, in turn, support an organization’s business strategy.

The communications objectives, for example, might change opinions, increase awareness or establish an organization’s reputation. The key is to have a direction and an ultimate objective – and for that objective to enhance an organization’s overall success.

Too often, however, public relations firms and counselors tout their capabilities, and whether they can utilize the latest in communications tools or innovations. One firm or counselor may showcase their experience in social media; another, in video; or yet another in events that have attracted wide publicity.

A prospective PR firm must have the right capabilities, but it’s important for the client not to become enamored of the “latest shiny thing” in media and communications. Instead the client should ask the firm to demonstrate how it has developed strategies in the past, and applied its capabilities to achieve measurable objectives. If a firm is truly strategic, they’ll be able to answer those questions.

Do they understand your business?

This seems like such a basic requirement for outside counsel, but over the years I’ve been struck by how agencies – whether from public relations, marketing, advertising or other disciplines – don’t always take the time to get to know the business of a prospective client.

Certainly, this requires some perspective: you’re hiring someone for their talents and skills in public relations, not to understand every single aspect of your company or to manage your business overall. Still, I’ve been surprised when people from agencies working with my employer, when offering advice or ideas, demonstrated that they didn’t understand basic aspects of my business.

On the other hand, I can recall pleasant, enlightening – even exciting – experiences during interviews of prospective agencies, when their answers to our questions showed that they had taken the time not only to learn about our company, but to understood key challenges and issues we were facing. It’s in those moments that a prospective agency or counselor shows that it can offer new, helpful insights on how you can succeed in the future.

Do they offer a fresh perspective?

As noted above, along with the understanding of your business, an agency needs to offer fresh perspective on your public relations, marketing or communications programs. In fact, the best counselors can take their knowledge of your company, business and industry and apply it to help your company stand out from its competitors.

Please note: No consultant can bring a fresh perspective to a client’s program if the client is not willing to consider new ideas. In fact, no company or manager should even consider hiring an outside expert if the manager is not open to new perspectives. If you hire a public relations counsel and begin to feel like all you’re doing is giving orders, it might be time to question whether the counsel is really adding value. Likewise, a smart client should expect outside counsel to question old assumptions – diplomatically, to be sure, but to question them nonetheless.

Do they take the initiative?

There’s no “one size fits all” approach to compensating public relations counsel. It may involve payment according to an hourly fee, payment for a specific project or payment of a pre-agreed, monthly retainer.

One case involving compensation structures, however, actually taught me the value of a public relations counsel who takes the initiative. When I was given responsibility for the communications and public relations of a division of my company, I was assigned an agency that had a long-term relationship with the corporation. At first, the agency provided me with great support and counsel. But it experienced management changes, and I was assigned new people.

The compensation was based entirely on hourly fees. I seldom heard from the staff assigned to my account; then, when I called the agency with a simple question, I’d get my answer, but soon afterward get a bill for 15 minutes of counsel. This happened repeatedly – it’s what some might call “nickel and diming.”

I evaluated the relationship, and decided to seek a new agency. The firm we hired convinced me of the value of putting them on a retainer, and once that was signed the agency always took the initiative to contact me with ideas, advice and recommendations. They demonstrated that a valuable public relations counsel will be eager to learn about the client’s business, then “take the first step” to provide assistance and support

What is their reputation – professionally, and ethically?

Getting the answer to this question will involve talking with past clients of the firm, and with other corporate communications executives. When interviewing a firm, the client also can ask if the agency belongs to a professional organization, such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and if employees are required to adhere to the codes of ethical conduct prescribed by those and similar organizations.

A public relations firm’s responsibility is to help manage the reputation of the client. Before hiring a public relations agency, make sure the agency itself has established its own strong reputation, for integrity as well as expertise – among its clients, competitors and others in the marketplace.

What other factors do you consider important in evaluating a public relations firm?