By Demion McTair.
Opinion: We know too well how Public Relations Officers (PRO’s) of organizations are sometimes viewed.
For many organizations, this is the individual who can speak well, manage social media, and perhaps be seen with a camera at events taking pictures.
In some organizations, it is often thought that Public Relations Officers are probably not really necessary as other officers can do what they do.
This longstanding view of Public Relations Officers (PRO’s), in some circles, is not only limited but false and should be rejected.
There is a lot I could write about the history of Public Relations (PR), from its development in the US or Britain, or even what some consider to be its ancient roots documented in places such as Iraq, India, or even Rome. I could even write about the factors and trends which gave rise to PR.
The focus of this piece, however, will be to demystify PR, especially in light of the many misconceptions surrounding the field. I will do so specifically, by giving the functions of PR and what Public Relations Officers – PROs, should really be doing.
What is Public Relations?
Public relations, defined by The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), “is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
The PRSA says “At its core, public relations is about influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across numerous platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization”.
Who is a PRO? Or who should a PRO be?
In my personal view, which is supported by my training in PR and the very definition of Public Relations and its core functions, above all else, the Public Relations Officer is a strategist, an advisor, and a producer.
As Public Relations is about persuading using truth, engaging, and building relationships, a PRO’s communication must reflect those qualities in strategy, advisory role, and production.
The strategist and advisor
A PRO must be a critical thinker. It is the job of the PRO to find the right words to say and to ensure the organization’s communication is planned and runs inline with the organization’s overall strategic plan.
The PRO should be good with words and is required to have power writing skills. He/she must be solutions-oriented and have a good understanding of the culture within which they operate.
They must be competent enough to provide counselling/advice to management on policies and how policies can affect relationships between and among internal and external stakeholders. They must also provide counsel as to how to best communicate policies.
PROs must be willing to spearhead and conduct research, even baseline studies as much as their decisions should be grounded in research and analysis.
Media relations is another key function a Public Relations Officer – PRO, should play for the organization. They should build quality mutual relations with members of the media and media houses and strategize as to the best channels through which to communicate the messages of the organization they represent.
A PRO should have some decent public speaking and speech writing skills.
Internal communication within an organization falls under the portfolio of the Public Relations Officer. PROs must be willing to respond to, and facilitate employee/member relations – responding to employees’ concerns.
The PRO must be able to formulate goals, strategies, objectives, and tactics to ensure the communication agenda of any organization is well planned and executed.
PRO’s can work in community relations, public affairs, change marketing, corporate communications, image restoration, integrated marketing communication, to name a few. But, one of the most important functions of a PRO is that of crisis management.
Public health/emergencies, controversial public statements, and controversial actions, posts, and other communication are different types of crises once they affect the baseline of an organization.
It is the role of the PRO to put together a strong team and be able to advise management and monitor and create the organization’s communication to respond sensibly, honestly, and effectively.
PRO’s have several main tools we use to communicate. The popular ones include the press release and the feature stories, but there is a lot more to it.
PRO’s are often expected to be social media savvy, to have at least basic skills in graphics, be able to analyze visual and other forms of communication, be able to produce leaflets, brochures, financial reports, magazines, periodicals, quarterlies, official letters, technical reports, speeches and the like. PRO’s must also be able to manipulate (produce) audio and video content and must be extremely strong at event planning and execution.
Just about anyone cannot do a PRO’s job. It takes years of training in the discipline to uncover the best practices for effective communication and great skills to serve an organization as a trusted strategist, advisor, and producer.
Now that we have an idea of what PR entails and some of the functions of a Public Relations Officer, let’s look at some of the things that PR is not:
PR is not:
Propaganda: Though PR is also about persuasion, it must never be confused with propaganda.
The fundamental difference between PR and Propaganda is that PR is based on, and uses truth to persuade, while Propaganda does not necessarily use truth.
In “Propaganda: The formation of Men’s Attitudes”, scholar and philosopher Jacques Ellul argued that instead of blatant lies, as is believed propaganda is, propaganda operates instead with many different kinds of truth— half-truth, limited truth, and truth out of context.
PR is all about honesty and truth. So, the next time you watch an episode of the political drama – Scandal and you want to get into PR because you are fascinated by the wit and mastery of fictional character Olivia Pope, simply rethink PR in relation to what Oliva does.
Journalism: PR and Journalism are similar in that they are both grounded in truth.
PRO’s will write press releases on behalf of their clients in the anticipation that Journalists will publish them. If well-written, a press release can be published as-is. So, PRO’s can write like Journalists.
Both PR and journalism are tools of information as well.
But, PR is fundamentally different to Journalism in that the focus of PR is to persuade, engage, and to build mutual relationships, while Journalism has at its core the truthful and factual dissemination information to the public without the persuasion and building mutual relationships elements.
There is a big debate as to whether the commercialization of the media by corporate interest has stolen this attribute from the journalism profession, but that is another debate for another time.
There are also other distinctions between PR and other promotional tools such as advertising, promotions, and publicity that can be dealt with in a subsequent article.
So, the next time you think about being the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of an organization, what you are really saying is that you want to be a chief strategist, an advisor, and a producer in that organization. As such, you will plan and execute the organization’s communication with its various stakeholders.