About a year ago, I was having a conversation with someone about my current academic endeavor. After telling this individual that I was currently working on my Ph.D., the following brief interaction took place:
Him: So, what are you getting your Ph.D. in?
Me: Public Relations
Him: Wow, you can get a Ph.D. in that now?
Needless to say, the conversation was short, but it made me think. I ignored his apparent ignorance on the value of a Ph.D. in PR (it’s one of the fastest growing needs at universities and organizations increasingly need research-proven individuals to help them manage this complex environment of public-organization interaction). Frankly, I’m used to responses like this (which is why I commonly say my Ph.D. is in Communication, which it is…), but the whole interaction has got me thinking…what does PR mean to everyone else. I’ve come up with 4 categorizations, two from the general public perspective, two from a business perspective…first the public
1. Public Relations is Spin. I can’t say how annoying it is to read this somewhere. It’s out-dated, it’s antiquated, and it’s usually something someone who has no idea what PR is says. In fact, such a person would call it PR and not public relations, as in, “that’s just PR”. At the same time, this is probably still a valid opinion…because some PR practitioner out there still thinks his or her job is about spinning stories in the company’s favor.
2. Public Relations is lip service. Seemingly related to point number one, this one has a point of departure, and that is in the way organizations actually RESPOND to the general pub’s concerns. On some level, yes, organizations use PR to pay lip service to what people want to hear, but on a slightly higher level, PR is, to the general public, the body that carries out socially responsible endeavors for the community.
Now…the business perspective…
3. Public Relations is Promotion: This perspective seems like the most common. Public relations is a disguised form of marketing, and comprises everything that the company does that is not paid for as or by advertising. For example, sponsoring an event, giving away some free product, or reaching out to blogs to sponsor contests. In other words, PR is marketing that seems like it’s more than just marketing.
4. Public Relations is Strategic Management: On higher business levels, PR is about strategic management of corporate image and reputation. It’s more than just branding, it’s working out the organization’s existence–and the legitimacy for its existence–in the global community. This part comprises everything from gathering reputation issues, listening to customers and activist groups alike, and then advocating the interests of the public to the organization, and that of the organization to the public. At this level, PR is total communication management, from issues management to crisis response to whatever fits in between.
And…now…one bonus point for good measure
5. Public Relations is building relationships with stakeholders, or people who affect or are affected by an organization’s decisions. This one is by far the most intriguing, because up until this point, this seems like a very academic (read: unaccessible) definition of public relations. For those of us in the Ivy Towers, this makes sense. Yes, PR is for building relationships…there you have it! But practically speaking, what does it entail? What does it preclude? Can you really hire someone and say, “Welcome to the PR position…now, go build relationships with people who affect or are affected by our decisions!”? Not really. Now, there are plenty of studies revealing what goes into building relationships, but as of yet, it seems like there is no set of practical guidelines or instructions for a new PR person to jump in and start working (at least, in the same way that “PR practitioner as news provider and press release writer” has).
Now, my rambling is done…but, when all is said and done, I think PR Research has to go further than just saying, “It’s about building relationships” we have to establish standard operating procedures.