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A few years ago, Linkedin, the largest global network of professionals, conducted a global survey of 16,000 parents of her employees to determine how much they understood the jobs their children do. They used a rare initiative called Bring In Your Parents day to actualize it. Public Relations had the misfortune of ranking among the top ten misunderstood jobs in the world. Other jobs in the category included Investment Banker, Sports Team Manager, Radio Producer, Actuary and User-Interface Designer.

What is even more unfortunate is that some CEOs and top executives of organizations who use Public Relations services, either in-house or from consultants, tend to hold a very narrow and, sometimes, outrageous view of what we do. It is very common to find them confuse our whole profession with just an aspect of it or with other forms of communication.

This is not a matter to be treated with kid gloves. For crying out loud, it is these misunderstanding and misconceptions that prompt our clients and employers to make outrageous demands on us. They contribute to the diminishing of the profession in the eyes of the people. The difficulties PR people encounter with clients and employers when trying to discharge their duties in line with the tenets and best practices of the profession can also be traced to these misconceptions.

What They Think Public Relations is

Ask the average person, including professionals in other fields, what they think Public Relations is, and you are likely to receive the following in response:

  • Public Relations is publicity

We should know that Public Relations is not publicity.  It only uses it as one of its tools for creating awareness for organizations, their products or services, and shaping opinions of stakeholders towards them. There are several other aspects of public relations such as employee relations management, community relations and corporate social responsibility, crisis management, to name a few.

  • Public Relations is media relations

This is what a large percentage of CEOs and top executives of organizations think PR is all about.  It’s true that PR people establish, build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with media practitioners including bloggers; the aim is to make it easy to use the mass media as a channel to help their clients reach out to their dispersed stakeholders. Perhaps, this is what informs the misconception.  We should know that media relations is only an aspect of PR but not all of it.

  • Public Relations is the same thing as Marketing

I think this confusion stems from the fact that PR helps Marketing create awareness for organizational products or services, launch the products or services and defend the products or services that have swam into troubled waters.

Marketing is a discipline that helps organizations or individuals identify the needs of their customers and meet them profitably. Its focus is on the customers. But PR is a management function that focuses on identifying, building and maintaining relationships with all stakeholders of an organization or an individual, including the customer.

  • PR is in-house journalism

This wrong notion of PR is mostly held by journalists who have crossed over to Public Relations without going through the rigors of proper training and certification. To them PR begins and ends with flooding the mass media with media releases and the Internet posts about happenings in the organizations they represent. There is definitely nothing wrong in keeping stakeholders informed about what goes on in their organizations. That is part of the work. But everything is wrong when you do it as if that is all there is to Public Relations work.

  • Public Relations is cheap advertising

The root of this misconception is PR’s ability to gain huge media coverage without direct financial cost when compared to advertising. But the purpose of advertising is to change or induce buying behavior for the purpose of enhancing sales, recruiting staff or accepting an idea. It uses mostly the mass media, and its main targets are buyers and potential buyers.

Not so with PR whose purpose is to foster dialogue and create mutual understanding between organizations or public figures and their constituents. PR uses the mass media and several others it can control; such as website, brochures, seminars to name a few, and addresses a wider audience; from the community, employees, government, regulators to customers, activists and industry associations.

  • PR is spin

In communication, spin is what happens when you interpret a situation or an event in a biased manner with a view to persuading or winning public opinion in favor of an organization or public figure. Such is not PR.

Every credible PR professional knows that you cannot build enduring relationships that way and will therefore not be tempted to use spin even on a short term basis. PR is about earning stakeholders’ trust. Spin is another name for manipulation of truth. PR people know that you don’t earn trust with anything less than the truth.

  • PR is event management

PR is not event management; it uses events as channels through which it delivers specific messages to its target audience. For example, it uses seminars, workshops and other educational events to educate and inform stakeholders who need such. Customer forum, investor meetings and media luncheon are used to express gratitude for support received from customers, investors and the media. Grand openings, exhibitions and anniversaries present opportunities to create impressions and show the public face of an organization. Media conferences serve as a means of making announcements about important happenings in an organization, explaining organization’s position on issues or defending the organization in times of crisis.

  • PR is propaganda

PR suffers a bad name just because most people mistake it for propaganda. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines propaganda as ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader or a government.

The same dictionary defines PR as the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm or institution.

Perhaps, the common ground shared by PR and propaganda is that they both seek to persuade or influence the perception of their targets. PR does that through dialogue and truthful information. But for propaganda, one-way communication, misinformation or outright falsehood may be the names of the game.

7 Reasons why Public Relations Is Misunderstood

In trying to fix the problem of this multiple misconceptions of Public Relations, we should not be tempted to hack at the leaves of the matter; rather we should go to the roots. It is clear that the roots are not only in the way others think or choose to think about us, they are also in the way we organize our profession. In the course of my work and research, I have been able to identify the following seven reasons why Public Relations is misunderstood:

  1. Lack of a generally accepted definition

Perhaps Public Relations is the profession with the highest number of definitions. As far back as 1976, Rex Harlow, an American academic who founded the American Council on Public Relations now known as Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), identified 472 definitions during his research at the time. The figure may be up to 2000 now. Till date PR has no universally accepted definition. Since a definition is a statement expressing the essential nature of something, according to Webster Dictionary, not having a generally accepted one fosters misunderstanding of what PR is.

  1. Many traditions of practice

Modern PR started as press agentry where propaganda was the in-thing. The age of publicity followed. Next was the era of scientific persuasion that saw psychological theories applied to get stakeholders to do the biddings of organizations. Today, we are in the era of symmetrical communication that considers the expectations, needs, values and desires of stakeholders in the effort to win their understanding and support.

The misunderstanding of PR flourishes because so many practitioners are stuck in the old PR traditions. They continue to market their ideas in books, articles, and speeches from those perspectives. These different ideas from different traditions of PR make it difficult for people grasp what PR truly is as of today.

  1. Lack of a central paradigm

A paradigm has been defined as a framework acceptable to all practitioners upon which a discipline is taught and practiced. PR has two well-known competing paradigms: the symbolic interpretive paradigm and the strategic management or behavioral paradigm.

The symbolic interpretive paradigm believes that PR is the use of favorable messages to create good impressions about an organization in the minds of its stakeholders and publics. How they interpret the organization is what counts, not how the organization behaves.

But to the strategic management or behavioral paradigm, PR should perform a bridging or boundary spanning function by ensuring that the expectations, desires, feelings and values of stakeholders are factored into strategic management decisions for an enduring, harmonious relationship with them.

  1. Proliferation of job titles

This is what I got when I went through the job titles in business cards I received at an event organized by the Lagos chapter of the Nigeria Institute of Public Relations: media relations officer, media adviser, community engagement officer, community relations officer and business development officer. Others were: Director of Strategic Communications, Stakeholder Manager, and Customers Liaison Officer, to name a few.

These job titles reflect the different aspects of PR work the bearers do. But they contribute to the confusion about what PR is because most people tend to see these tiny aspects of the profession as the whole of it. This is the case with media relations which is often mistaken for Public Relations.

  1. PR’s shape-shifting nature

PR is a shape-shifter of a profession. It changes in practice to suit the political ideology, economic structure, media system, level of activism and culture of the place in which it is practiced. For example, where the political system is autocratic, press agentry or publicity model reigns because the opinion of the people count very little in such climes. But in mature democracies, symmetrical approach to communication takes the day.

This shape-shifting nature of PR contributes greatly to making it misunderstood because it presents itself differently in different geographical locations. It therefore seems to lack a steady, core essence through which it can be identified.

  1. Multiplicity of perspectives

PR scholars have canvassed a range of authoritative theories and each has won their share of followers. This has brought about so many ways of seeing and practicing PR.

American Scholars promote PR as relationship management; European Scholars believe PR is about social responsibility. Asia places PR in the domain of interpersonal relationship. Here the personal influence model, which focuses on building personal relationships with persons of influence and power, is the beginning of good PR. African Scholars are thinking of an African Body of Knowledge that will prescribe how PR is practiced in the continent. These different perspectives tear PR apart in the minds of the people and create a lot of confusion as to what it is and how it works.

  1. The activities of quacks

Today Journalists, marketers, social media geeks, web developers and event planners are encroaching into PR without the required training and certifications. They spread their diseased notions of PR with abandon. They do everything and anything in the name of PR and create a lot of confusion in the minds of people about what PR really is.

The Way Forward

It is easy to find that PR is misunderstood because there is no uniformity of thought about what it is and how it should be practiced, especially among its practitioners all over the world. It therefore needs a common ground in theory and practice. From that ground as a foundation, we can stand firmly on it to educate the world on what it is, what it can achieve and how it gets the work done.

Specifically, I think we need to do the following:

  • Organize a world conference in the magnitude of the Paris Conference on Environment for an agreement on a central paradigm and a definition for Public Relations. This will unite the different voices in practice and teaching of the discipline and by so doing create a uniform identity for the profession. Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the global voice of Public Relations should have the mandate to organize the conference.
  • Every professional should adopt a one man/woman campaign approach by teaching everyone around him/her, from family members to neighbours to co-workers, what Public Relations really is.
  • National Institutes and Associations should eliminate quacks in the profession by ensuring that those who have not mastered its body of knowledge are not allowed to practice.
  • It is also important to launch national PR Awareness Campaigns to enlighten the citizenry and the government about what we do. With the convergence of communication fields occasioned by communication and information technologies, Public Relations profession needs more Public Relations now than ever before.

Complaining about our fate is not the answer. We need to take the bull by the horns to conquer it. Action is the key to success. According to a Chinese proverb, “the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the next best time is now.”