PUBLIC relations has been my life. I have been either a practitioner or educator of public relations for almost 40 years and have spent a lot of time explaining what it is and what it does.
That is because public relations is largely invisible and misunderstood – an ‘unseen power’, according to the late American academic Scott Cutlip.
Most people, if they think about public relations at all, think it is about pleasing people. A job suited to pretty young girls with bubbly personalities. Or that it is about promoting products and services, like marketing. It can be this, or can include marketing-like activities, but many public relations practitioners never do any promotional work, so it is not a good definition.
Some people relate publicity or getting their organisation into the mainstream and social media as the goal of public relations, and it can be that too, but like product promotion, many practitioners never do any media-facing work.
Public relations is sometimes seen – is less invisible – when a company or public person is facing a crisis and public relations practitioners are on hand seemingly to get them out of trouble or to restore their reputations. And yes, just like other ways of thinking about public relations, many practitioners never do crisis work either. Yet all of this is public relations.
The simplistic assumption that public relations is about ‘relating to the public’ and hence its suitability to bubbly young women is both wrong and unhelpful. The term actually refers to building and maintaining relationships with ‘publics’ not ‘the public’. These days most people call ‘publics’ stakeholders and although in academic definitional terms they don’t mean exactly the same thing, it is probably easier to understand what a stakeholder is than an obscure notion of a ‘public’.
So, public relations then is about relationships with individuals and groups who have a ‘stake’ in an organisation. Anyone who can have some influence on the success of an organisation or who is influenced by the actions of an organisation can be thought of as being a stakeholder. Organisations succeed by having good relationships with these people and public relations practitioners are those whose job it is to ensure that occurs.
As an example, let’s consider who the key stakeholders for Curtin University Malaysia are. To do that, we need to identify the groups of people that it exists to serve and the groups of people that can impact on how successfully it does that. The most obvious of these are students, staff, suppliers, the local community, and Curtin University in Australia. Some less obvious stakeholders are future students, other universities in Malaysia, the government, and the media.
But depending on the circumstances, of what is happening in the community and beyond and what the issue of the day is, all stakeholders are vital. Irrespective of how obvious they are as a group or how likely they are to be able to affect the success of the university, all stakeholders need to be identified and their wants, needs, and expectations of the university need to be understood.
Public relations practitioners, called corporate communication practitioners at Curtin, will determine how best to manage the relationship that the university has with each of these groups. Each relationship will be different, based on these different needs and wants and resources to sustain those relationships will be allocated accordingly.
Communication is the essential ingredient of these relationships. Organisations once understood their role in these relationships was to send out communications to these groups periodically, to keep them informed. But this is an outdated approach now as communication is a two-way process that can’t be achieved by simply broadcasting messages by writing brochures and social media content and holding events. Organisations have to also listen if they are going to effectively communicate and therefore build and maintain these vital relationships.
Consequently, contemporary public relations practice is not simply about advising stakeholders about the activities of an organisation. Public relations practitioners devise strategies to ensure they know what their stakeholders are concerned about and how their organisation might need to adjust its activities to ensure those stakeholder expectations are being met.
Remember that it is vital to the success of an organisation that the needs and desires of its stakeholders are met. Organisations exist in communities and value chains, not in isolation. Organisations don’t just have to communicate, they need to understand what their stakeholders know about them and expect from them, and consider to what extent they may need to adjust their conduct to enable them to have the support of each stakeholder group so they continue to be relevant and to exist.
Another way of describing the work of public relations practitioners is that they hold up a mirror to an organisation and reflect back to it what others see. Using research, analysis, and engagement, they bring in to an organisation the thoughts and concerns of those looking on, doing business with, and working for that organisation, and help it to see itself as others do and to adjust its views and actions accordingly.
All of this vital work is public relations. Good public relations practice helps to guide the way organisations and their leaders conduct themselves, performing the role of being the moral compass or conscience for organisations. It is a vital management function that you don’t need a bubbly personality to perform.
Curtin University Malaysia offers degrees in public relations and its graduates are helping shape the way local and international organisations conduct themselves.
Dr Karen Conrad is an Australian public relations academic working at Curtin University Malaysia.