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.


The slippery slope of “sponsored content”

You’re scanning a news-related website, checking the headlines, and one catches your eye: “The End of Barack Obama?” Hmm, what’s this?  You click on it, but instead of a news story, you see an advertisement for an investment adviser.

Bob Garfield

That was the experience of Bob Garfield, advertising blogger, onetime commentator for Advertising Age magazine and author of The Chaos Scenario, which traces the upheavals in the media since the advent of online journalism, the decline of traditional print media and the struggles to monetize journalism on the Internet.

What Garfield encountered is a form of “sponsored content” — in his case, on the web site of the once-proud Philadelphia Inquirer. Garfield railed at the Inquirer’s deception in exchange for advertising dollars – what is often called “clickbait.” Garfield proposed that, to keep “paid” and “earned” media distinct, news outlets adhere to standards of disclosure. As the Edelman public relations firm – which has developed such standards for public relations practitioners – has indicated, doing otherwise could spark penalties from such government agencies as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Perhaps such standards of disclosure for sponsored content can help ensure the integrity of the three entities involved in the publication – the, media, sponsoring organizations and their public relations staff and agencies. Perhaps.

But first, let’s be clear: the sponsored content that serious, ethical firms such as Edelman and its clients include informative, well-researched articles, providing useful and informative content to readers. They’re published under the auspices of a sponsoring company or other organization. And they’re clearly labeled as such.

But although sponsored content can be a legitimate as component of a public relations strategy, the three entities that can be involved in sponsored content – the sponsoring entity, the public relations advisers and the news media — should carefully consider the pros and cons of sponsoring, placing or publishing it, as it carries specific risks for all three

The news media

Pros: Hit by dwindling circulation, new competition and other economic pressures, sponsored content would seem to offer an important new source of revenue for news outlets.  And research indicates that readers – especially from the business world – may be more amenable than in the past to receiving information directly from sponsoring organizations.  As an article in the January 2013 edition of Inc. stated, “Business-to-business customers would much rather read an article or white paper – or watch a video or slide show – than see a pop-up or banner ad.”

Cons: The Inc. article discussed sponsored content versus traditional advertising. In that comparison, sponsored content that consists, for example, in a white paper can have much more credibility than a traditional ad. But it’s a different question altogether when you compare sponsored content with professional journalism.

Just as important, the incentives of sponsored content for news outlets are not positive: how often will a news organization, stretched for funds, sell space for sponsored content at the expense of its regular news coverage?  And, more insidiously, to what extent will news organizations lure readers to such clickbait as in the case of Bob Garfield, thus weakening their credibility as independent sources of news and information?

The sponsoring organizations

Pros: Much of the public – in particular, business leaders – today has a low opinion of the news media.  Executives often complain that a reporter “got the facts wrong,” or forsook accuracy in an article or report in order to inject more conflict or drama into an article. Why run that risk, an organization may ask, when you can “go direct” in a sponsored article placed in a news or trade publication?

Cons: Although blogs, web sites, Facebook and many other new tools of social media and the Internet give companies, organizations and individuals legitimate new opportunities to present their viewpoints and information, research continues to indicate the value of third parties in the news and information equation.  While audiences are increasingly open to a variety of information sources, news and information that is edited or curated by a respected third party generally is assigned more credibility than sponsored content.

If you have the money, it may be easy to “buy” media coverage, whether in an advertisement or sponsored article.  But “earned” media continues to have more credibility in the eye of the reader.

Public relations practitioners

Pros: Traditionally, public relations pros – whether in agencies or on corporate staffs – have had journalism backgrounds, with journalism degrees or experience with news organizations.  Knowledge of the news and information gathering process, and the ability to write clearly, effectively and fast, are required to do their jobs effectively.  Writing well-researched, informative and persuasive articles is part of their DNA: they’re well qualified to produce sponsored content.

As the demand for sponsored content has increased, large public relations firms also have formed units that will specialize in sponsored content, tapping a growing new source of revenues.

Cons:  Advertising and public relations are both part of the marketing mix, but they have very different purposes.  Advertising seeks to provide memorable messages directly to potential customers or supporters. Advertisers pay for that capability, and the messages are so delineated.

Although public relations has long defied definition, the description of the public relations function in 1923 by Edward L. Bernays, the “Father of Public Relations,” still carries weight today:

…information given to the public, persuasion directed at the public to modify attitudes and actions, and efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with its publics and of publics with those of that institution.

Edward L. Bernays

Edward L. Bernays

Public relations, therefore, participates in the public news and information process, and effective public relations practitioners represent their clients successfully and ethically in that process.  That’s why smart companies and other organizations hire them: if the organizations want to place ads, they’ll hire advertising people.

I have obvious biases here, but one of the reasons I have pursued a public relations career is that the results of effective public relations – for example, being quoted or cited in a major national or global news outlet – are much more powerful than advertising.  In my view, neglecting that role to pursue such activities as sponsored content ignores more powerful and beneficial opportunities.

The recent fixation on sponsored content presents risks for the news media, sponsoring organizations and public relations pros.  As they should consider those risks, consumers and readers of news should also ask: is that content really what you think it is?

Media relations in China: a matter of protocol

xinhua_news_agency_32633aWith news global and accessible 24 hours a day, it’s easy to assume (as many do) that public relations – and, in particular, media relations – is the same the world over.  But although “Western” style independent journalism is practiced in many locations, there are still cultural and political norms and customs that need to be considered by professionals who represent their clients to members of the news media.

That’s especially true in China, whose one-party political system affects the Chinese view of how the media – both domestic and international – should function in their country.  Approaching the news media in that country – for example, to seek attention and coverage for a U.S.-based client entering the market or doing business there – requires a very different protocol than in the United States.  In business journalism in particular, it relates to the importance of hierarchy in China’s political system as well as among a variety of social networks and organizations, and the guanxi – relationships – that are required to conduct business effectively.

In the United States, a public relations professional who wants to provide information or pitch a story idea about a client to the media typically contacts the reporter or editor who would most likely cover that story – who covers that “beat.”  Successful PR people work to become trusted sources for reporters who may have an interest in a given topic and what their client may have to say about it.

While relationships with individual reporters are important in China, there are several other critical relationships required to deliver a client’s message or story effectively.  To successfully obtain media coverage in China, the first step is not necessarily taken by a PR person with a reporter.  Traditional protocol looks to top executives of the client organization – for example, a U.S.-based company – to introduce themselves and begin the relationships with the top management of the Chinese government as well as the targeted Chinese media organizations.  I saw this firsthand when serving as the public relations person for a U.S. reinsurance company entering the China market in 2001.

We were interested in obtaining coverage for our company’s opening of a Beijing representative office, even though many Western insurers already had such offices in China. But there were still many topics and issues in the China marketplace on which our company could offer insights and expertise.  So, with the help of an experienced China consultancy based in Hong Kong, the Exceptional Resource Group, or “XRG” (, we prepared a set of statements on such topics as China’s pending entry into the World Trade Organization and the importance of reinsurance in the development of China’s infrastructure.  We had those statements, along with company fact sheets, backgrounders and a news release – both in English and Mandarin – ready to distribute in a comprehensive media kit.

The relationship lunch

Then, at XRG’s recommendation and with their assistance, we took the first step: an informal relationship-building lunch with editors of the top national Chinese business and news outlets.  In a private room at a Beijing restaurant, we hosted the top execs of such publications as China Daily, China Insurance, China Economic Times, China Women’s Daily, the Xinhua news service, and others invited with the assistance of XRG.  This kind of informal lunch is feasible in China because all national media organizations work for and report to the same national government and political overseers. Interspersed around the large table were well-briefed senior executives from our company, along with strategically positioned interpreters.  All of us from the United States were prepared to talk about not only what our company wanted to bring to the Chinese marketplace, but our views about key economic and business topics and issues – the timely topics that would be of most interest to each one of the different Chinese news organizations.

The conversation was friendly, convivial and free flowing.  It also was interesting to observe the interactions of the editors, who knew one another but apparently didn’t see each other very often.  The lunch also was an opportunity for them to reconnect and talk candidly about issues of the day.

XRG brought to our attention an important caveat: although it was okay for the Chinese editors to openly voice their criticisms of their current situation in the informal lunch atmosphere, this did not mean that we, as foreign guests in China, could, or should, do the same thing.

As the end of the luncheon approached, we distributed our prepared media kits.  Then, as the news chiefs reviewed the materials, we saw the fruit of our efforts: the editors began pulling out their cell phones and calling their reporters, instructing them to attend our official opening reception the following evening and to ask for me.  The next day, before the reception was to begin, reporters showed up at the event, asking for our media materials.  (Later that evening, our company’s executives would cap the event with an official ceremony with officials of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission.)

Mutual respect and trust

Does this approach guarantee a company’s desired media coverage? Not at all.  The reporters I talked with asked smart and probing questions, and were just as prepared – if not more so – than reporters I met in Beijing from Western news services.  But our media relations approach reflected a respect for their culture, and helped to build relationships of friendly respect and trust, demonstrating how building guanxi guides business and similar interactions in and with China.  The resulting positive media coverage, reaching millions in the China marketplace, helped to introduce our company to this dynamic and growing marketplace.

As China’s news media has grown and developed, such an approach likely may not be feasible in all circumstances.  But as our success showed, a clear holistic understanding of how to build relationships and navigate the protocols in and between many different Chinese political, government and media organizations is fundamentally important not only to doing business in that country, but to conducting media relations as well.