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October 3, 2019

PR-ing our PR work to non-PR folks

by Zulfikar Fahd, Account Executive, BlueSkyCommunications

Last month at a networking dinner in Toronto, I coincidentally shared a table with two fellow PR consultants. Our conversation drifted to how executives in corporations do not actually understand what PR people can do for them.

The conversation went on a predictable course: lamentation of how difficult it is to explain to others what PR people do, let alone what we are capable of doing. There was the self-congratulatory we-do-so-many-things idea, the we-are-so-inexpensive-compared to-others idea and the usual other clichés.

But we three agreed that it is extremely difficult to explain what PR does.

I couldn’t help but wonder then, what we are actually doing in PR. After all, isn’t the PR professional’s core competency to “package” complex ideas into attractive, bite-sized packages so that others can easily understand them?

This, I think is the crux of the problem with the PR industry and it gives rise to findings such as the recently-released study on “How Executives in Large Companies Perceive PR: A Ground-breaking Survey of over 300 Stakeholders Outside the Comms Function.”

The study found that 40% of executives don’t think PR delivers good value. It also found that business leaders have a poor understanding of PR, with 20% of them not knowing what PR stands for.

According to the report, over a third of executives admitted that they did not have a good understanding of what the PR function does within their business, with the survey finding that generally, the larger the company, the lower the understanding of PR. Respondents were also asked to name the business functions they had the strongest understanding of and only 15% of participants put communications in their top five.

This is pretty damning for an industry whose job is to help build brand awareness and influence audience behaviors for companies. 

Two questions PR professionals might need to ask themselves:

  1. Is the corporate narrative and messages we craft often times too self-serving and unconvincing? The truth is that many messages are just corporate speak that do not answer the “so what?” question that is posed silently by their audiences. Such messages convince nobody, are not “talkable” and serve as a placebo for themselves and their clients.
  2. Are we taking ourselves seriously enough and earning a seat at the table?  PR can be a nebulous concept as it can mean so many things depending on the context. But it can also have significant power and sway amongst the C-level, when clearly articulated and demonstrated. Trying to comprehensively explain PR is a losing proposition as it is not straightforward. A better way is to first pique their interest and show the value.

Hence when I am confronted by the PR-industry dreaded question: “So what do you do in PR?” I usually quote the words that my first boss always said: “We make anything complicated sound simple; anything simple sound important.”

Bang. They’re caught when you say that. They take at least half a second to turn it over in their heads and they usually smile at the novelty of the answer. Many then inquire with their eyes or words, “What do you mean?”

That’s when you know that you have their attention, hook, line and sink, and you go ahead to explain various aspects of PR that are relevant to them.

If the PR industry wants to be understood it must start with an ability to encapsulate what it does into an intriguingly compact and attractive package. Crafting such messages is crucial. In fact, messaging is one of the core aspects to PR: what to tell, who to tell and how to tell it. We are story tellers, and people’s understanding of our story is essential to the profession’s success.

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