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The Process of Public Relations

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What is Public Relation?

The Institute of Public Relations provides the following definition: 'Public relation is the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its public.'

Public relation is a fascinating industry. Although sometimes people claim that it is difficult to evaluate or quantify the success of PR activity, it is obvious when it hasn't been well used. Some of the best examples of successful and important public relations activity have been seen in recent years, when the communication of information about major transport or financial disasters, for example, has been well handled by public relations experts. Unfortunately, examples of unsuccessful public relations exercises have also been easy to spot, when an organization or company is heavily criticized in the press and does little to protect its image.

One of the most striking things about public relations is the breadth of activities covered by it. Nearly every organization and company wants to influence the ways in which they are seen by other individuals and groups, and their 'public' can include the local community, shareholders, the employees within the company, the retail trade and so on.

As with advertising, some public relations professionals work in house and some work in agencies. It is also possible to work freelance, though only after having developed a strong base of contacts. In each case, the job demands close liaison with all the marketing staff within a company, with a clear idea of their objectives and plans. An agency will appoint account managers for each client, and, as with an advertising agency, the account manager executes the communications activities for the client within the budget that has been agreed. Much public relations work involves communicating with the press, so an understanding of how journalists work is important.

A public relations manager for a building society, for example, would ensure that the press, shareholders, government and any other important group were kept constantly updated with the society's activities and particularly its successes. If any unfavorable news was on the cards either about that building society or societies as a whole, the public relations manager needs to pre empt it, sending press or news releases or holding press conferences to communicate the society's stand on the issue.

Another example of the importance of public relations is the part played by it in the communication of information after a disaster, where a system is in place for dealing with emergency press calls and those of families within minutes of the event. This has been called 'crisis PR' and although it does not alleviate suffering, it can certainly restore confidence in the company much faster than if the company shrugs off the public in its hour of need. Companies have become much more aware of this fact over the past decade, and many have very sophisticated emergency systems in place. A similar example is where a product has been contaminated or is dangerous either through mechanical error, or criminal activity and the company needs to communicate this as quickly as possible to all its distribution channels (shops, restaurants, bars and so on) in precisely the right way to avoid disaster, panic or loss of confidence in the product.

What Kind of People Work in Public Relations?

In view of the media connection, some people move from journalism to work in public relations. They have an understanding of what will interest the press, and how to present a story in the most effective way in order to get the desired coverage (or to avoid getting negative coverage). The ability to write well is essential, to pick out salient facts and express them in the most succinct and eye catching way.

If you work in an agency, the ability to communicate with clients is all important. The relationship is a vital one and can be difficult if the client seems unreasonably demanding. It is important that your role is clearly established from the beginning and that both parties realize the scope of the work. Public relations activity could be endless; there is no end to the work you can do!

A good starting point is as a junior in an agency, or as an information assistant in a company or organization. Local authority organization and those operations which are opting out of local authority control, coordinating their own marketing and public relations, are employing increasing numbers of public relations staff, to communicate their achievements to their public. These organizations generally want people who already have solid journalistic or public relations experience. There are an increasing number of courses available an active professional organization, the Institute of Public Relations and many good publications which can describe public relations in far greater detail than is possible here.

Case Study

Donna is public relations executive for a financial services company.

I didn't imagine I would be involved in public relations when I was at university. I studied French and thought I wanted to be a translator. However, after leaving, I found a temporary job in a public relations agency, and the more I found out about it, the more I wanted to work in the industry permanently. Fortunately, the temporary job ended up lasting for 6 months, so I was able to observe what went on and even make a couple of contacts which have been useful in my present position. I spotted an advertisement in the paper for a junior in a small agency, no experience needed, but a great deal of patience, enthusiasm and excellent communication skills. It might sound odd, but I had done quite a bit of acting at college, and I am sure this helped me during that first year. You spend a lot of time convincing people about things, and the more professional your approach, the more persuasive you can be. That first job involved updating press lists, organizing printing and generally supporting the account managers, who always seemed desperately busy.

If you are interested in a career in public relations, there is no substitute for experience, and this is what employers will be looking for. There are some university courses in public relations, a few offering work experience, and parts of the CAM Foundation courses, but dealing with the various public (press, shareholders, local community and so on) is a combination of inherent skill and acquired expertise.

The agency then promoted me assistant to an account manager.

This was my first real 'break' and I worked extremely hard to get it right, often spending long hours in the office before a major presentation to the client, or a press launch. In public relations, the sort of work you will be doing depends very much on your client. If it is an FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) manufacturer, you may be running promotions in magazines, liaising closely with an advertising agency on the launch of a new product, organizing countrywide theme days anything that has the objective of encouraging understanding between the company and its public. Or you could be working for a local authority, communicating its activities, aims and successes to the community.

There are several good books on public relations and I found some of them useful in supporting what I was learning at work. I also took the Chartered Institute of Marketing's Diploma in Marketing in the evenings, and although public relation was only a part of the Communications course, it was useful to work on how it fitted in with the rest of the marketing mix.

After four years there, I decided I would like to move 'in house', working for a company on their public relations, so I moved here and began working in financial PR It is a highly competitive field. We do have a public relations agency which carries out a great deal of our specialist work, and one of my jobs is the liaison between the agency and ourselves. The financial services industry has had a difficult time in recent years, and one of our tasks has been to restore confidence in our services and our commitment to the service of our customers. This is precisely where public relations are most important and most stimulating. Its hard work, though and anyone looking for a nine to five jobs shouldn't consider public relations.
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