A Plea for the ‘P’

When I first decided to study Public Relations as an undergraduate, it was largely because of the incredible breadth and possibilities of the field. Anyone associated with a company in some way is a public, so PR professionals should manage relations with all of them. Sounds exciting! So why is it always pigeonholed as media relations?

It never fails. When I talk about my future career in PR, I typically get one specific response: “okay, so you deal with the media!” Well, yeah, kind of. But PR is so much more than just writing press releases and networking media contacts. In short, we need to start emphasizing the ‘P‘ in PR.

Earlier this year, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) engaged its audiences in a discussion about what exactly constitutes Public Relation. The result was a broad, yet enlightening updated definition of the field:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Looking at the field through this definition, PR involves communicating with employees, customers, shareholders, the government, and everyone else to whom the company’s actions matter. For me, it looks like media relations is actually just an indirect way of interacting with publics, and thus should only constitute a piece of the pie that is PR.

That’s why I get so annoyed when Public Relations is immediately associated with media relations, even by those working in related fields. As an example, a major advertising agency in downtown Pittsburgh houses a PR department that is solely responsible for sending out media packages and generating publicity for its clients.

Even worse, when networking with a Pittsburgh advertising executive a few months ago, she answered my objection that PR can be more than just working the media with the rather short “not really, what you are talking about is corporate communications.”

Isn’t that really the same thing though? I could make the argument that ‘corporate communication’ is even broader than PR, but both unarguably involve communicating and building relationships with various publics interested and involved in the company. Looking at the definition above only confirms that statement.

If Public Relations is narrowly defined as simply communication with media outlets, it’s easy to look at it as rather unimportant to a company’s success. Sure, publicity is all well and good, but where is the Return on Investment in that? Yet in the broader definition, PR becomes invaluable to any company looking for long-term, sustainable success.

In an increasingly technology- and parity-based marketplace, a consistent brand that cares about its customers can easily gain the advantage over its competitors. But consistency goes beyond product quality.

Would you continue to buy a product that you know is high in quality even after an employee complains to you about the bad atmosphere at work? How about someone telling you about the bad experience they had with customer service? What good is a quality food if due to a technicality it doesn’t comply with FDA regulations?

An effective Public Relations department can easily take care of either of these problems. But only if the company realizes that public does not equal media, that PR goes beyond appeasing journalist and putting its name out there.

So here is my Plea for the P: embrace Public Relations. Embrace the opportunity to establish relationships with your customers, government, shareholders, even suppliers. By all means, don’t stop doing Media Relations, but add to it. Because Public Relations can help you set yourself apart from your competition, gain customers, and most importantly, deal with problems before they arise. So please, Don’t forget about the true meaning of the P in PR.

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