01 July 2007

The Persuasion Business: What the heck is public relations?

In 1999, I headed up the public affairs section of the Department of National Defence task force in Newfoundland and Labrador that would co-ordinate any military assistance to the provincial government in the event of problems caused by the supposed Y2K flaw in some computer programs.

We planned and trained nationally, regionally and finally at the provincial level. The provincial exercise took place on a weekend in the fall of 1999. All key staff members spent the weekend running an operations centre exactly as we would if needed.

The daily routine began with the commander's daily briefing, usually at seven o'clock in the morning. All department heads gave a summary of the previous day's activities, forecast what was coming and highlighted any issues that might need the commander's personal attention.

After each such briefing, known informally as morning prayers, the department heads usually grabbed a quick breakfast before beginning their shift. That first morning, a couple of my colleagues separately took me to one side to ask a simple question: "Is that what you do?"

"Yes", I replied, at first not quite sure what was coming next. I had given the commander an overview of attitudes in the key audiences we would be dealing with: the federal and provincial governments, views of key politicians at both levels of government, the news media and specific reporters, the public in affected areas, and internally among soldiers. Only after ensuring The Boss was thoroughly familiar with the situation did I give him what literally amounted to a 30 second discussion of my section's planned activities.

He didn't need more. In all the years I had worked for this individual, he had only wanted to focus on issues that might require his attention; he trusted the staff he had picked to run the show. The Boss wanted the lay of the land and any key ideas he'd need to put across. He wanted to have a good feel for specific people he would be dealing with. Everything else was ours to handle as department heads in co-operation with each other and with decision makers inside and outside our organization.

My whole briefing had taken only about 10 minutes.

As I looked at my colleagues, I slowly started to understand their question and their expressions of discovery. One of them, a professional with considerable experience throughout the Canadian Forces and the department including tours overseas on major operations, said he had never seen a briefing like it before from a public affairs officer.

He was used to public affairs (public relations) being all about dealing with news media. There were a certain number of media calls. We handled this many interviews. There is a news conference at such and such a time. The other stuff - the analysis - was a revelation to him.

His revelation was less a revelation to me as a reminder.

Most people don't understand what public relations is all about.

They think it is just about dealing with news media. They think of it as publicity. They think it is part of marketing.

It is all of that, on some level, but it is really so much more.

Public relations is the management function that plans, co-ordinates and executes communications efforts with people who are interested in what an organization is doing, in order to gain and maintain their support for the organization.

That's a definition I work with but there are others.

The Canadian Public Relations Society defines public relations as "the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance."

A lengthier definition holds that public relations "is the distinctive management function which:

  • helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication understanding, acceptance and co-operation between an organization and its publics;
  • involves the management of problems and issues;
  • defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest;
  • helps management to keep abreast of and to serve the public interest effectively, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and,
  • uses research and sound, ethical communications as its practical tools."

Take either definition and you have a good idea of what a public relations professional does.

One of the most important common features of each of those definition is the word "management".

With only a small amount of preparation, anybody can handle media telephone inquiries. In many organizations, including public relations departments in any company or government office, the business of talking a telephone call, arranging an interview, sending out information or even issuing a news release or holding a press conference can be handled by the literally thousands of competent administrative people. Heck, software programs these days come with template "press" releases and there's even a for dummies book on public relations.

The real challenging in public relations is managing. It is about planning, co-ordinating, leading, organizing and budgeting. It is about deciding and making the right decision inevitably takes training coupled with experience and judgement. Not everyone can do that.

One could say that a public relations practitioner helps decide who says what to whom, where, when, why and how.

If you take a closer look at those definitions a few simple ideas leap out.

First, communication is a two-way street. It involves sending a message and receiving one. The sending bit is perhaps the easiest of all. Most people figure that part out just by the action involved in sending out a news release.

But receiving? There is always feedback from people interested in what an organization is doing. Sometimes that feedback is a clue to something elsewhere in the organization that needs fixing. Sometimes that feedback isn't what the senior managers don't want to hear, but it is very important that they do. That's where public relations comes in.

Second - and related to that feedback thing - public relations often involves change in some way. Sometimes an organization has to communicate about change, like closing a business. Sometimes, the change comes as feedback from disgruntled employees or voters.

Third, public relations connects an organization with the public interest. That isn't just the interest of the public as a politician or public servant might look at it. Sometimes it is public interest in the sense of the greater good, but public interest may mean the benefit of a particular group.

Think about a health care administration. Its core business is providing health care needed by the people within its geographical area. Their interest - as a public - is getting the care they need when they need it. Seems obvious, right? Well, what happens when that care isn't what they want or need or, in some instances, what can actually be delivered within the budget provided by a public system?

Interests may clash, but the effective management of communication is supposed to help resolve those sorts of conflicts. Public relations involves establishing and maintaining "mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and co-operation." That health administration needs to give people realistic information about its programs. its needs to know if its services are being received and when there might be a budget issue, people may need to understand why some programs are expanding while others, like say their local clinic, is having its hours cut or is being closed.

In a more concrete example, look at the recent controversy involving one health authority and breast cancer screening. Aside from the problem with faulty testing - bad enough as it is - cancer patients and their families were likely most concerned to know how big the problem was. Did it involve me or my wife or mother? The next most important thing to know was what was being done about it. How is the health authority dealing with the problem and doing what it is supposed to do: deliver the best possible care?

take it from a slightly different angle and you can see this idea of public relations as well. Those patients are ultimately responsible for their own care and they can't make proper decisions if they don't have all the information. They depend on the relationship they have not just with the health professionals but with the entire organization to help them deal with their illness. Holding back vital information erodes the relationship between the care givers and the people needing care.

On a wider level, though, what seemed like a small decision to deal with a handful of patients, ultimately affected a bunch of others. People who would never even think about breast cancer screening personally had to wonder what other tests for other diseases might be buggered up. Then comes the real acid for the relationship: what else haven't they been told.

Once the story hit news media, the problem became not just in the relationship between the health authority and its patients (and their lawyers), it became a gigantic problem in the relationship between those patients, as voters, and the politicians who run the whole government. Patients discovered that three successive health ministers had been briefed on the whole thing - including withholding some information the non-disclosure apparently - and did...nothing.

In the whole business of dealing with the damage, another entirely separate issue was dragged in. At a news conference to announce an inquiry into the entire breast cancer business, someone decided to do two things. First he or she decided to delay the news conference. Reporters coming together at lunch hour for one announcement were left cooling their heels for no obvious reason.

Second, that same person decided to stick the head of the local health authority in front of a microphone to announce that a radiologist had been suspended because of possible problems with his diagnostic ability. Remember the bit about other tests? Initial reports noted that radiology involves mammograms. As anyone over the age of 18 likely knows, are tests to screen for, you guessed it, breast cancer. Imagine the reaction.

Even though this radiologist had not performed mammograms - information correctly reported in subsequent days - the decision to announce this separate issue in the way it was announced linked one crisis directly to another issue and thereby magnified the whole thing to another level.

Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, indeed. Sometimes they fall on your head. Sometimes people wind up standing under a gigantic tree as it crashes from cuts they made to it.

Lots of information was handed out in this case, both initially and subsequently, but some crucial information - crucial as the patients saw it - was held back. The decision to hold that information back was taken by the senior-most levels of health care management and may have been done for what they took to be good corporate reasons. The communications people may well have advised a wider disclosure but as subsequent reports said, the information was held back based on legal advice.

Now in due course, we'll talk about the lawyer-public relations challenge, but think about that whole issue from a pure public relations perspective and you'll see the importance of effective public relations management. If you want people to support you, they have to know what you are doing. If you don't tell them, they can't know and, almost inevitably, they won't be overly supportive of what you are trying to do.

Get caught holding back or being thought of as holding back and support crumbles. Confidence erodes and, as the case turned out, the bosses of the bosses who held decided to hold back the information get more than a little annoyed or - when they join in the bad decisions - get caught up in a maelstrom of public concern.

No one likes unhappy people - disgruntled publics - especially politicians. As the case of breast cancer screening shows, badly handled public relations decisions - not necessarily made with the advice of public relations practitioners, by the way - can make a bad situation much worse. in fact, take a look at what happened compared to say the CPRS definition of public relations. How many of those key ideas got trashed?

When you get right down to it, public relations is essentially about relationships. So, against that background, next time we'll look at some simple ideas that underpin effective relationships, I mean, effective public relations:

Reputation and credibility.

- srbp -