I've been hearing some debate on Twitter about what PR is and isn't.
A few years ago, The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) brought some of its leaders together to produce a definition of PR. Here's what they said:
Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.
(Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)
Some of the conversations I catch online revolve around the notion that PR and marketing are the same thing. As many industry "outsiders" seem to see it, PR is about getting attention for a company or its product, or apologizing for problems, to facilitate sales.
And it is that -- but not only that.
The "PR is a function of marketing" definition only addresses the "realize organizational goals" part of our professional objective and commitment, where the organizational goal we're talking about is generating sales. While marketing may achieve mutual understanding between a company and its audiences in the pursuit of that, marketing isn't focused on the public interest: its job is to create and promote products people will want to buy.
So PR isn't about money, it's about the public interest?
It's not a one-or-the-other situation.
It's a fact: companies exist to make money. And PR functions in for-profit companies play a major role in supporting marketing (through publicity, customer advocacy, employee communications, etc.). But our focus is a bit different: in PR, it's not primarily about selling the benefits of the product, it's about creating and nurturing relationships that will make customers want to buy from the company. That's why mutual understanding and the public interest are central to the practice of PR: people prefer to do business with companies that treat them with respect.
For example, I'm aware of a business that sells what many consider an excellent product, but whose founder and CEO is widely reputed to be a terrible person.
Let's call this company Bob's Danishes, and the founder/CEO, Mr. Bob. Bob's Danishes produces what many people consider excellent danishes: they are tasty, they are appealing-looking, and they are made of high-quality ingredients. Mr. Bob's marketing folks work hard to get the message out about Bob's Danishes, and talk all about their high quality and appetizing characteristics. They create great advertising, promotional and merchandising campaigns, which target the audiences most likely to enjoy Bob's Danishes with exactly the right messaging to draw them to Bob's Danishes stores.
But while they have been very successful, there's also a significant segment of their ideal target market that won't go near a Bob's Danish store, and will tell anyone who'll listen why not: because from what they understand from media reports and the grapevine, Mr. Bob is a first-class jerk, who treats employees and anyone he feels "beneath" him like garbage.
Marketing can pound that hold-out segment of the target population with brilliant product advertising and deep discounts all it likes: this public won't budge, because they don't want to support Mr. Bob.
That's where PR comes in.
PR's role in the for-profit environment does support the ultimate goal of achieving sales, but not by flogging the product: our role is to give the customer reasons to want to do business with us.
Now, if Mr. Bob is actually the jerk he is reputed to be, the PR challenge is huge. PR practitioners who practice professionally and who adhere to codes of standards like those of The Canadian Public Relations Society and the International Association of Business Communicators won't lie about him, and (if they're willing to work for him at all) will have to focus on creating goodwill in the community through initiatives like a generous community relations program, hoping that the good done in the community will help people look beyond their boss' personal failings.
If Mr. Bob is misunderstood, the PR person has the opportunity to change that, so the company's publics feel good about buying from Bob's Danishes.
Even in for-profit companies, PR is about relationships before sales.
More than once in my career, I intervened in organizational activities that I felt could damage the company's goodwill in the community. To be clear, these planned activities were never dishonest or dangerous or anything like that -- but they were geared at generating sales with one segment of the customer base in a way I felt would damage the company's relationship with another.
PR practitioners in for-profit companies do this all the time. Sometimes it's simply a matter of killing an initiative that is too potentially damaging; others, it's about getting together with the publics we think might have a problem with the initiative, to seek and address their input before moving forward.
I don't want to make it sound like I'm saying PR is altruistic and not economically-motivated: in for-profit companies, it is about making money. If we don't make sales, we don't exist, period. But if our customers don't want to buy from us because they think our company does bad things for the community or the environment or its employees, no marketing campaign will make the sale.
The PR function is about creating and maintaining healthy, two-way relationships with a company's publics; we work toward mutual understanding and the public interest, because doing that will help us meet our organizational goals, whatever they may be -- including sales.