Many people think of Public Relations (PR) as simply the fire extinguisher in your building, or the the insurance policy for when things go south. You know that it’s important and necessary, but only for the bad times.
In other words, we need PR to help restore our reputation when we mess up, or at least help us avoid saying the wrong things. To make matters worse, the only times PR companies seem to be on the news is when they mess up.
Few people see PR as a positive good in an organization. Little wonder the communications department seldom gets a place at the table during board meetings and key company decisions. They are seen as only good for “broadcasting” the final decisions to the public. Phrases such as “reputation management” don’t do much to help the situation. They make the practice seem cosmetic at best.
Communications departments are often the first casualties during an organization’s cash crunch. When I first ventured into the industry a couple of years ago, I was highly skeptical about the role and necessity of PR in organizations. In this post, I will outline three reasons why I am now convinced that PR or communications is one of the most important departments any organization could ever invest in.
1. We are living in the middle of an information explosion
This first half of the 21st century may easily be described as an information economy. Whether one works in manufacturing, transport or the service industry, information is integral to the effective running of business. The democratization of the internet, proliferation of social media platforms and the low cost of information sharing in general have made this the most “informational” period in history.
Organization’s are realizing that how they do their work “communicates” something about their organization. For example, how you treat your factory workers or pay your drivers communicates something about your organization. The potential of that information getting to the public is high, which means that your business may stand or fall upon someone saying something about your work on social media.
Everything you do communicates, whether you like it or not. It has therefore never been more important to be intentional about what you communicate. Beyond the company bottom-line, what do your board decisions say about the kind of organization you run? What do your procurement processes say about your ethics and integrity? What does the promptness of your customer care department, or the time people spend waiting for a service, say about your priorities?
These seemingly non-informational aspects of business, turned into public information, have the capacity to make or break any organization. The fact that the public is now empowered to share information about your organization out there means that you are better off leading that conversation. This is not just about managing and controlling what information gets shared; it is also about making decisions with the reputational implications of those decisions in mind. It means involving the communications department from the outset in each major company decision making process
2. Business is about people
This may seem like an obvious one, but it still needs saying. At the heart of every business idea is the objective of solving a given human or social problem. Businesses are about making life better, easier, livable, and about making the world a better place. This may seem idealistic, but it is the core principal behind all economic activity.
However, the harsh reality of business is that it is easy to forget about people, especially when the business succeeds. Facebook may have started as a college campus information-sharing solution, but it quickly became a booming business. “Boosting profits” quickly overtook “connecting the world” as the company objective (even though the company mission statement may say otherwise).
Now Facebook is more concerned about connecting people in a way that will avail as much user information to Facebook as possible. No business is immune to mission creep. We all start out as humanists and idealists and end up profit-chasing-capitalists and realists. It is therefore important to keep asking yourself important questions about why your company exists.
Why are you here? Your work is about people, no matter your job or industry. If your business activity is ever going to be sustainable, you need to always focus on the “public” in public relations, and the “relations” in public relations. Your communications department exists to keep you sane. It exists to keep you on mission and reset you when you start deviating from your purpose.
Your communications department also reminds you of the short and long term effects of abandoning the heart of your business. Many PR crises happen because people forgot about (other) people. Self-interest took the helm. The organization allowed profit to take precedence over mission. PR keeps you effective by reminding you why you exist. PR keeps you sane by keeping you on mission, both internally and externally.
3. People do business with people they know
This is the most basic and obvious purpose of PR: people need to know you exist if they are going to do business with you. This is also the reason PR often gets confused or conflated with marketing. PR helps your brand get noticed in a way that is more authentic than mere advertising or marketing. PR helps your brand “earn its place” in the public consciousness and leads to more trust by the public.
Many PR agencies describe themselves as “conversation-starters, headline-grabbers, attention-getters, sales-drivers, reputation-guarders, brand-builders” (Weber Shandwick). While these are catchy taglines which make for good company web copy, they don’t get to the essence of the practice.
The real work of PR happens not in starting conversations, but ensuring you have something worth saying; not in getting attention, but keeping it; not in simply guarding reputations, but ensuring those reputations are worth guarding in the first place.
Unfortunately, you may be good at what you do in your industry, but if your core business is not communications, then you need PR to cover your blind spots. You need PR, not just to make your business known, but also to make your business worth knowing.
At the end of the day, no matter how meritocratic we wish the economy would be, people do business with people they know. No matter how good you are at what you do, it won’t do you any good if people didn’t even know you exist.
Kenyan Journalist, Communications Specialist, and a follower of Jesus Christ. I graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil and Structural Engineering but decided to pursue a career in journalism.
Worked at Nation Media Group for four years, first as a General Reporter for the Daily Nation before becoming an Investigative and Special Projects writer.
Later transitioned into PR and worked as a Content Associate for two years at Hill+Knowlton Strategies (WPP). Currently a Communications Consultant specialising in Content Strategy and Development.