I remember one of my knowledge-sharing sessions with students of public relations. One of them said something striking but rather debatable: “There is no effective public relations without using the mass media”. The house became polarised- while some agreed, others did not. This got me thinking about the mode of PR that we practise in Nigeria. But can you effectively practise PR without deploying mass media? This piece will either support or contradict your response.
The belief that there is no PR without media is understandable and has historical undertones. The earliest form of PR was essentially publicity creation. In fact, the hitherto practitioners were publicists whose job was to write promotional brand stories and secure media coverage for organisations. That’s the kind of PR practised by the late American Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who is considered the founder of modern public relations. This historical trace must also factor the seminal works of Austrian-American pioneer in PR and propaganda, Edward Bernays.
Many people believe that public relations is media relations. That’s their understanding and it largely accounts for some of the ‘reputation crisis’ which the profession faces. Isn’t it ironical that a profession designed to manage reputation is suffering some public misperception? It’s a serious issue and the subject of another piece. But there is more to PR than relating with the media and influencing positive coverage, sometimes vanity press publicity because the approach is not disciplined enough.
Media relations is key. That’s incontrovertible. The media are channels through which the PR professionals convey messages to their stakeholders. It’s not just to create awareness- the media management process should be informed by the need to build and strengthen lines of mutual understanding between the organisation and its publics so as to elicit supportive behaviour from them (publics).
Apart from media relations, PR professionals should expend resources on community relations, issues management, Online Reputation Management, sustainability and CSR initiatives, employee relations, developing spokesperson capacity for key executives and leveraging offline thought-leadership opportunities. These are also very crucial aspects of PR. According to the MD, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Nigeria, Tokunbo George-Taylor: “PR is not just sending out press releases, which most clients believe will sell their products and services. It’s about developing PR campaigns that will engage your audience, drive conversations and develop organic stories”.
For instance, organisations operate in communities. It behoves the PR professional to devise ways of maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship between his/her company and its host community. The PR professional should do a needs assessment in the community and evolve strategies to meet those needs or solve identified challenges. This can take the form of CSR programmes. If this is well done, the organisation is guaranteed goodwill, community support and loyalty. In fact, the host indigenes become ambassadors of the organisation. Effective community engagement eliminates the likelihood of community activism against the organisation and fosters reputation mileage.
I have noticed that some PR officers concentrate too much on the external publics at the peril of the internal publics, especially the employees. The employees are stakeholders of the organisation. You don’t need mass media to communicate relevant company values and policies to them. You just need a consistent employ of ‘controlled channels’ with relevant messaging to convert these employees into strong loyalists that will start ‘image-making’ for the organisation. That reduces your burden somehow. It’s the PRO’s responsibility to develop a robust employee communication plan that supports the overall corporate objective.
Similarly, the PR professional should explore thought-leadership platforms to project the credentials of his/her organisation and position it as a leader of thought in its industry. This is not limited to sponsoring articles and interviews in the newspapers. I’m stressing the need to have a list of pertinent industry events and plan speaking engagements for your MD, CEO or other top executives. Carefully choose topics and prep your boss for the event. Arrange for him/her to be part of the discussion panel at high-brow events. This will not only attract media reportage; it will also cast your brand in good light.
Lastly, let’s drum it into the ears of PR neophytes and hopefuls that the profession goes beyond the achievement of press clippings and broadcast mentions, even though these things are important. PR professionals will achieve more if they incorporate other aspects of the profession into their strategy. Everything should not centre around the mass media. We can do more.
Stanley Olisa is a media and communication strategist at Caritas Communications Ltd, Lagos. Reach him via- email@example.com