If there was ever a four letter word in PR, it’s flak. It’s used by media and execs, in the movies and on TV as a joke and as a slur -- and is 100 percent the wrong image for our industry and for any PR professional. The idea that PR is run by brainless individuals that just do the bidding of some executive is a stereotype we can’t afford.
So let’s put that aside for a minute and talk about what a PR person should be and what our industry should represent. PR is the steward of the company message and the chief protector of the company’s brand and image. PR helps the company appreciate how it is understood, the difference between its brand identity and brand knowledge, and how everything from trends to competitive threats to company evolution will impact the market. We are the calm in the storm when a crisis hits, and the first line of defense when things go wrong. We help the CEO articulate his message, the CFO provide context to the street and the CTO turn technology jargon into comprehensible English.
We are planners. We help a company understand how to shape its message through media engagement, speaking opportunities, contributed articles, awards and social media. We focus on the bigger messaging framework to ensure the company talks about itself as a whole, instead of focusing on the individual pieces. We make sure analysts understand where the company is going, why it has picked this direction and how this journey will benefit customers, investors, partners and employees. We ensure that our company spokespeople are prepped before an interview so that they know what the reporter is writing about, details about their interview style and insight into their knowledge of the market, company and technology. We also make sure that the reporter has what they need to be successful – providing access to customers, partners, experts, information and ideas that help tell a bigger story than any one press release might indicate.
We do all of this before we ever pick up the phone and call a reporter. In truth, for a good PR person, 90% of our job is done before the media are approached. So why do reporters love to feed the stereotype that PR people are flaks? There are probably dozens of reasons that would require a couch and a degree different than mine, but I think the main reason is some PR people often set themselves up as simply the messenger.
A key value a good PR person brings to their clients or company is to serve both the internal needs as well as the needs of the reporter. To do that effectively, you have to earn the trust of both groups and then work to build upon that trust and maintain it. You have to really understand what your company or client is trying to do and why their approach has merit in the marketplace. You have to understand how a product will impact a customer or market and how it differs from a competitor.
When we decide to work with new clients, I always tell them that they are not going to like everything I say to them. They might fire us for that, but one of the things they are paying our firm for is our opinion. If they decide to do something we think will have negative repercussions, we provide alternative options and tell them what we think might happen if they continue down that path. We’ll do everything we can to keep what we might think will happen from happening, but we don’t back down if our experience, insight and expertise are telling us something different.
I’m not worried about ruffling feathers, soothing egos or simply cashing a check. I’m concerned with how the company presents itself and how it is perceived. My focus from a program development and strategy perspective is on the long game: how little pieces here and bigger pieces there will help form a complete picture of the company, its prospects and relative market value. Reporters come and go, beats change, executives move on, but your reputation follows you wherever you go. So…don’t be a flak.