Ironically, despite the ballyhoo and effusions, PR is facing its own PR crisis. It turns out PR folks (myself included) aren't master communicators when it comes to our own profession. A recent study showed that a significant number of executives don't believe that PR delivers good value for their brand. What can we do to combat this?
Before you panic, let's look at this as a doctor would a patient. Let's discover what the problem is, decipher the root cause, and prescribe the best remedy.
The Crisis: What Are We Dealing With?
Undoubtedly, when we read this, our first fear is that people are losing trust in PR as an industry and that this distrust is going to spread.
Not only that, but without trust in PR, it will be tougher for PR pros to get the budget and resources they need to do their job well.
Now that we see what we're dealing with... We must ask ourselves the question "Why has this happened?" We'll address this with our next question:
What Is the Root Cause?
Lack of Education
The same study found that a fair amount of business executives did not understand what PR is, starting with what it stands for -- public relations. When asked, many guessed that it stood for public remit, press release, press relations or protecting reputation.
If they don't understand the basic definition of PR and what it stands for, chances are they don't understand what PR is and what it does.
To back this up, when asked to name the business functions that they had a strong understanding of, only 15% of respondents listed PR in their top five -- leaving around 85% who struggle to grasp what PR and communications professionals do.
And of those who had a good grasp of how PR functions, 80% believed that PR delivers good value for their brand. So obviously, if people were better educated about the function of PR, they would have a better understanding of its value.
The Voice of the Media
Next we turn our attention to the image that PR has among media outlets.
So often when there's breaking news involving a PR firm in the media, we see a negative spin put on it. When an individual or company consults with a PR firm on a matter, we often see such phrases as "PR spin" or "publicity tour" -- giving the impression that the PR industry is akin to a circus.
Of course, anybody who has worked in PR or seen its results, knows that this is not true. But instead of highlighting PR's role in educating the public and improving reputations and visibility, the media chooses to portray us as publicity-hungry wolves that are called in only when the situation is hopeless.
Journalists obviously have a skewed impression of the PR industry.
But, on the flip side, PR pros aren't innocent in this battle with the media. Just do a general Google search and you will find articles about how difficult it is to work with journalists or other negative articles written by people in the PR industry.
As long as these two sides are at odds, it becomes harder for both sides to maintain a clean image.
So our root cause, instead of being a problem with the model of public relations itself and what PR pros do, is actually a problem with a lack of understanding and education around PR, as well as the general way that media portrays the industry.
But it is far from hopeless.
The rest of this post will be dedicated to what we as PR professionals can do to combat this stigma and rebuild the trust of executives around public relations and its value.
How to Combat the B2B PR Crisis
1. Proactively Answer the Question 'What is PR?'
If one of the root causes to this crisis is a lack of understanding, then we need to start educating people about PR and its function within a brand. Show them that it's about more than simply "spinning" stories and solving problems.
But notice that we said to be proactive about this. While people may in fact wonder "What is PR?" chances are they're not going to vocalize that question. It's up to us in the PR industry to show and teach people what we do.
B2B PR firms and pros can start by creating content that takes people inside their industry and reveals the many facets that make up public relations.
When we meet with clients about a particular PR strategy, we need to show them the tactics and process we use -- explaining each stage and why exactly it is essential to the bottom line of their brand.
2. Help People to See What We Do
One reason people might think that public relations is all about press releases is that that is often the focus of our conversations. There is a wealth of information out there about press releases -- blog posts, social media posts and videos that perpetuate the press release craze.
While press releases are an important part of our relationship with the press, people need to know that PR is about more than just sending out the perfect press release.
We need to start varying our conversation to include the big picture of PR -- social media, influencer relations, thought leadership PR. This will help brands to understand the overall value that we bring to the table beyond the stereotypical PR roles.
3. Advocate for Transparency
Sadly, the PR industry is often portrayed as carrying out some sort of mysterious "dark arts" -- i.e., conjuring up a clean image for unethical companies and individuals. Of course, anyone who has worked with PR knows that is not the case. Yes, we offer reputation management, but this is a far cry from "covering up" misdeeds. It is often simply using a company's current activities to highlight the personality behind the brand.
So how do we combat this misconception about PR?
With clients, we need to advocate for transparency. Encourage them to be honest about their company's past and present. Transparency and authenticity are a winning combination with any audience. But this also contributes to the PR image as a whole.
Transparency also needs to exist between PR people their clients. Instead of just working on reputation management, PR pros need to sit down and have a conversation about how they will manage a company's reputation and promote visibility. This will dispel any and all myths about "dirty-dealing PR."
4. Rebuild Trust with Journalists
For decades now there has been a contentious relationship brewing between journalists and public relations pros -- with both sides throwing their own punches. These punches have included commentary and posts on such topics as why journalists are difficult to work with or how public relations is a dying industry.
If we're going to push through the noise and recreate our image, then we need to bury the hatchet. Put your best foot forward and do all you can to improve relationships with journalists. Eventually, journalists will begin to see us as providing a real service, rather than pests who fill their inbox with useless stories.
Re-examine how you work with journalists and look for ways to ameliorate your relations going forward.
5. Provide Proof of ROI
If executives can't see the value of public relations, then it's time to actively prove it. While it has been argued that the effects of PR are unquantifiable, recent developments in big data and artificial intelligence have thrown that argument out the window.
Now we have sophisticated analytics software designed specifically to show the ROI of PR.
If your team does not have the budget to afford such software, you have other options. There are free and low-cost tools like Google Analytics to help you gather the data you need to prove ROI. It's only a matter of gathering the right data and bringing it to the attention of your clients.
This recent study on public relations is an eye-opening revelation for anybody in the PR industry. But instead of panicking, let's take it as an invitation to go out and prove our value to the businesses with whom we work.
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