November 6, 2018
Public Relations: Converting the Non-Believers
What’s the real reason some managers shy away from public
relations? I believe it’s because they don’t understand, or
believe, the direct connection between what public relations
is capable of delivering and their need to achieve specific
It’s lost opportunity of the worst kind. And a shame, because
the reason we do public relations in the first place is to
change the behaviors of certain groups of people important
to the success of those very Doubting Thomas managers.
First, I would say to them, surely, it’s not that difficult a
concept to understand or accept. People act on their perception
of the facts; those perceptions lead to certain behaviors;
and something can be done about those perceptions and behaviors
that leads to achieving your organization’s objectives.
Better yet, you can establish the degree of behavior change
you want, up front, then insist on getting that result before
you pronounce the public relations effort a success.
That way, you KNOW you’re getting your money’s worth.
Here’s another approach. How can you measure the results
of an activity more accurately than when you clearly achieve
the goal you set at the beginning of that activity? You can’t.
It’s pure success when you meet that goal.
Public relations is no different. The client/employer wants
our help in altering counterproductive perceptions among
key audiences which almost always change behaviors in a
way that helps him or her get to where they want to be.
But, as Doubting Thomases you might ask, are we
really qualified to do that job?
I think yes, because everything we do is based on the same
realities — people act on their perception of the facts, and
we can do something about those perceptions. And when public
relations activity successfully creates, changes or reinforces
that opinion by reaching, persuading and moving-to-action
those people whose behaviors affect the organization, the
public relations effort is a success.
It works this way in practice.
o you may wish to encourage a certain audience to sample
your soft drink brand’s great taste and refreshing flavor,
in the process creating perceptions of value, then new sales.
o or you may want people to perceive your organization
more positively, thus strengthening its reputation.
o it could be as simple as communicating a company’s
strengths to a target audience leading them to a positive
perception of the firm, in turn leading to new investments
in the company’s shares.
I know, Mr. or Ms. Manager, that you are not primarily
interested in our ability to communicate, paint images or
schmooz with the media. Nor are you especially fascinated
with our efforts to identify target audiences, set public
relations goals and strategies, write persuasive messages and
select communications tactics.
What I believe you DO want is a change in the behaviors
of certain key audiences leading directly to the
achievement of your business objectives.
Which is why we continually stress that quality planning,
and the degree of behavioral change it produces, defines
the success or failure of a public relations program.
Done correctly, when public relations results in modified
behaviors among groups of people important to an organization,
we could be talking about nothing less than its survival.
So, for your organization, Ms. Manager, that means
public relations professionals must modify somebody’s
behavior if they are to help hit your objective and earn a
paycheck – I believe everything else is a means to that end.
O.K., Mr. Manager, let’s look at how public relations might
work for you out on the ground. We’ll use the example of a
national marketer of furniture imported from the Far East.
First, we identify the key operating problem to be addressed.
Let’s say we receive news reports and other input, amplified
by competitive trouble-making out in the trade, about rumors
circulating to the effect that serious quality problems have
cropped up in the company’s factories in Southeast Asia.
Here, we verify whether the allegation is true or false.
So, because the company’s sales have leveled off and are
starting to decline, public relations counsel and staff, working
closely with the company’s manufacturing people here and
abroad, establish conclusively that rumors of declining quality
are without foundation, and simply untrue.
But, even though the rumors are not true, we still want to
verify the status of both consumer and trade PERCEPTIONS
of the company’s product quality.
But, surprise! Probing consumer opinion through personal
contact and informal polling out in the market place, counsel
and staff determine that, in fact, there really IS a
disturbing perception out there that the company’s furniture
line is “of low quality and overpriced.”
It’s useful to make the point here, Ms. Manager, that public health care
relations problems are nearly always defined by what people
think about the facts, as opposed to the actual truth of the
Moving on, we establish the public relations goal: alter the
public perception of the company’s furniture quality. This
will lead to positive consumer behavioral changes, in turn
resulting in furniture buyers returning to company showrooms
Now we determine the public relations strategy. We only have
three choices: CREATE opinion where none exists, CHANGE
existing opinion, or REINFORCE that existing opinion. Because
existing opinion has turned negative on the quality of the
company’s furniture, the public relations strategy will be to
begin the process of CHANGING that opinion from negative to
Here, we identify key audiences. In this case,
at the top of the list is the furniture-buying public –
customers and prospects – as well as the trade and business
communities, employees, local thought-leaders and media in
the company’s retail outlet locations, and a number of other
possible stakeholder groups.
Now, Ms. and Mr. Manager, we begin preparation of what we
hope will be persuasive messages for communication to our
It’s a challenge. The messages must disarm the rumors
circulating in the furniture community with clear evidence
of excellent design and construction quality, and seconded
by credible third-party endorsements such as satisfied
customers and top design consultants.
Regular assessments of how opinion is currently running
among target groups must be performed, constantly tweaking
the message and, finally, action-producing incentives for
individuals to take the desired actions must be identified
and built into each message.
Those incentives might include the very strength of the
company’s forthright position on the quality issue,
high-credibility designer endorsements, plans for expansion
that hold the promise of more jobs and taxes, or even the
sponsorship of a new cable TV furniture design show.
So, how will target audiences in the various company
locations actually be reached, Mr. Manager Thomas?
Among a wide variety of available communications tactics,
choices include face-to-face meetings, Internet ezines and
email, hand-placed newspaper and magazine feature articles
and broadcast appearances, special consumer briefings, news
releases, announcement luncheons, onsite media interviews,
facility tours, brochures and promotional contests.
Now, it’s time to monitor progress and look for
signs of improvement. Public relations staff and counsel must
speak regularly with members of each target audience, monitor
print and broadcast media for evidence of the company’s
messages or viewpoints, and interact with key customers,
prospects and influentials.
At last, indicators that the messages are moving opinion
in your direction will start appearing. Indicators like
comments in community business meetings, mentions in research
analyst’s reports, local newspaper editorials, e-mails from
members of target audiences as well as public references by
political figures and local celebrities.
What is happening, is that the action program is beginning
to gain and hold the kind of public understanding and
acceptance that will lead to the desired shift in public
And the end-game for this example of public relations in action?
When the changes in behaviors become truly apparent through
increased showroom traffic, media reports, thought-leader
comment, employee and community chatter and a variety of
other feedback – in other words, clearly meeting the original
behavior modification goal – two things have occurred. One,
the public relations program is a success and, two, by
achieving the behavioral goal you set at the beginning, you
are using a near-perfect public relations performance
To assess behavior changes and, thus, the degree of success
the public relations program has achieved, we need evidence
of changes in behavior showing up as follows: Internet chatter
and in print and broadcast news coverage, letters-to-the-editor,
consumer and customer reactions, shareholder letters,
comments from community leaders, informal polls of employees,
retirees, industrial neighbors and local businesses, feedback
from suppliers as well as reaction from elected officials,
union leaders and government agencies.
But, we can’t let the Doubting Thomases off the hook without
reminders that some very basic but unattended perceptions may
be out there that could lead to very costly negative behaviors.
For example, Mr. Manager:
0 if sales prospects are unaware of your product or service, you will
not get them as customers.
0 if your customers don’t remain convinced of the value of your
product or service, you lose them.
0 and if employees believe you don’t care about them, productivity suffers.
And on and on when still more audiences like citizens, journalists, regulators, investors and legislators don’t believe you.
In the end, a sound strategy combined with effective
tactics leads directly to the bottom line – altered perceptions,
modified behaviors, a happy CEO and a public relations home
So, Mr. and Ms. Manager Thomas, what do I believe you want
from us? I believe you want us to apply our special skills in
a way that helps you achieve your business objectives. But
no matter what strategic plan we create to solve a problem,
no matter what tactical program we put in place, at the end
of the day we must modify somebody’s behavior for you if we
are to earn our money.
Which is why I say that when you measure our real
effectiveness, you will be fully satisfied with those public
relations results only when our “reach, persuade
and move-to-action” efforts produce that visible modification
in the behaviors of those people you wish to influence. In my
view, this is the central, strategic function of public
relations – the basic context in which we must operate.
Doubting Thomases aside, I hope these remarks contain a
nugget or two that assists you in leading the non-believers in
your organizations to a better understanding of the function
of public relations. Especially how it can strengthen
relationships with those important groups of people – those
target audiences whose perceptions and behaviors can help or
hinder the achievement of their business objectives.
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