The Ugly Truth: Why Can’t PR Handle Its Own Reputation?

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In the last blog, I outlined the importance for business owners to understand the full role and capabilities of PR. By doing so companies will work with their PR company more effectively ensuring greater impact and results.

PR has always been aligned to reputation. In fact, it’s in our official definition:

“Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.

Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics” – Chartered Institute of Public Relations

PR plays a far more strategic role and yet it has been described as ‘fluffy’, spin and propaganda.

So, time to be brutally honest – if you’re considering PR you should know the ugly truth, just as much as the benefits.

Challenge 1: Public Perception

In the business of reputation – PR has a problem handling its own image.

Sadly, caricatures portrayed in popular culture (and some industry ‘spokespeople’ chosen to talk about PR) are not fully representative of what we do. I particularly enjoyed Sarah Hall’s blog on this subject, so I’m sharing it here.

My PR career also saw the age of Ab Fab, Sex and the City and ‘PR experts’ commenting on public sex scandals. This was miles away from what actually attracted me to a career in consumer PR in the first place. Long fascinated with the power of the brand, today I enjoy supporting founders of SMEs and their teams to promote their own brand and reputation to create long-lasting successful businesses.

Earlier this year, Radio 4 aired a programme The Art of PR, primarily discussing PR within the context of media relations. There followed much criticism and comment from both PRs and journalists afterwards.

The common response from media viewed PRs as annoying gatekeepers, blocking the truth from being ‘outed’, or seeking ways to generate publicity for famous clients. Again, mistaking PR practitioners for publicists. It’s not uncommon and an online search for clear definitions would leave anyone confused.

It’s also not surprising that PR has often been associated with the darker side of ‘spin’ when the industry’s ‘father’ Edwards Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) used psychoanalytical theory and persuasion in his campaigns to instigate sometimes questionable and damaging outcomes in the interest of his clients.

However, today’s PR industry values a far more ethical approach, being the “ears” and “conscience” of a company, working alongside the leadership figures of the company itself.

Whilst the PR industry did well to encourage debate to rectify this misrepresented view during the BBC Radio 4 Programme, but what impact did this have on those hiring PR services?

Challenge 2: Evaluation and Measurement

The second reason why PR has difficulty communicating its value and perhaps leveraging respect, is how it can be measured and evaluated.

If you’re a business owner spending money on an expert – what do you expect? RESULTS. Where? The bottom line of course.

Business owners and CFOs need to have a better understanding of how that is achieved.

Whilst we know that marketing and sales work hand in hand, the line between PR spend can’t always be clearly and definitively linked to sales as easily. Businesses spend money on customer relations training, how can they actually tie that investment to a P+L sheet? We know do know that repeat customers, word of mouth referrals equate to more sales but where exactly is the link to customer relations training?

Similarly, how can you quantify the benefits of PR and brand reputation? Business owners will only realise the devasting effect of not investing when a crisis is badly managed, resulting in the loss of customers and shareholders and irretrievable goodwill. A PR crisis indeed.

Big established brands with budgets can pay for in-depth analysis; audience tracking, social media conversations, focus groups to determine what people’s sentiment was before and after campaigns. However, if you’re a small company where do you find this investment?

So, what can we do with the tools that we have now?

I use ACE media to collate client coverage as they delve deeper into online coverage and PR generated social media activity. Evaluating the tone of coverage, links, but also shareability, it’s not 100% perfect with more features being developed, but I believe this is a positive start.

However, the true review doesn’t lie solely with your PR company. Clients are the ones with access to what we should be measuring. Only when we work together to collate and review this information can a full analysis of PR’s success be achieved.

An example of what I ask clients to provide for review before, during and after PR activity includes:

  • Links to the website and click-throughs
  • Dig deeper into your Google analytics to see where the traffic of any online coverage came from
  • Uplift in sales – ideally tracked
  • Increase in social media following, use of campaign hashtag if applicable across marketing
  • Downloads
  • Asking customers how they heard from you
  • Speaker opportunities and key networking leads as a result

The list goes on….

And finally….

I’m a big fan of Esther Perel (read work crush), a psychotherapist and couples therapist. I’ve often felt that human dynamics and relationship intelligence is just as important in the workplace as it is at home. We depend on each other far more nowadays as relationships have changed from transactional to emotional. Perel really highlights this parallel in her talk at SXSW about how relationships are now the new bottom line in business. Catch it here.

Whilst digital technology excitingly brings us reach, speed, and engagement like never before, we can not ignore the importance of relationship intelligence during this process. Just as we have now prioritised wellness at work as important for productivity, this once considered ‘soft skill’ can really impact our success.

“The quality of relationships at work determine the actual quality of our work and overall ability to succeed. Unlike performance, relationships are harder to measure, harder to sustain and harder to repair”.

I look forward to Perel’s forthcoming business relationship podcast. Perhaps now business owners will value and respect a practice dedicated in building and managing relationships between a company or brand and its audience.

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