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Passing the PR Bar

The public relations bar, should such a proficiency measure ever come about, may well include a test of PR's fundamental premise: people act on their own perception of the facts before them, which leads to predictable behaviors about which something can be done. When we create, change or reinforce that opinion by reaching, persuading and moving-to-desired-action the very people whose behaviors affect the organization the most, the public relations mission is usually accomplished.

And the premise should be tested because it's of such utility to many business, non-profit and association managers in achieving their managerial objectives. They use the right public relations to alter individual perception leading to changed behaviors among their key outside audiences.

In other words, they do something positive about the behaviors of those important external audiences, then persuade those key outsiders to their way of thinking, then move them to take actions that allow their department, group, division or subsidiary succeed.

What that approach does is let those managers avoid over concentration on tactics such as fun-to-manage special events, press releases and brochures. Instead, they focus resources on the very external folks who may hold their professional success as a manager in their hands.

A variety of results can occur -- membership applications on the rise; customers starting to make repeat purchases; fresh proposals for strategic alliances and joint ventures; community leaders beginning to seek you out; welcome bounces in show room visits; prospects starting to do business with you; higher employee retention rates, capital givers or specifying sources beginning to look your way, and even politicians and legislators starting to view you as a key member of the business, non-profit or association communities.

Can you say your PR team really gets it? Will they understand the blueprint outlined above and will they show commitment to its implementation, starting with key audience perception monitoring? As luck would have it, your PR people are already in the perception and behavior business, so they should be of real use for this initial opinion monitoring project. Be certain that your public relations people really accept why it's SO important to know how your most important outside audiences perceive your operations, products or services. Make sure they believe that perceptions almost always result in behaviors that can help or hurt your operation.

Sit down with them and review your public relations plan. Talk it over with them, especially your game plan for monitoring and gathering perceptions by questioning members of your most important outside audiences. Questions along these lines: how much do you know about our organization? Have you had prior contact with us and were you pleased with the interchange? Are you familiar with our services or products and employees? Have you experienced problems with our people or procedures?

You may feel its best to use professional survey firms to do the opinion monitoring work, but that can run into real money. So you may wish to use those PR folks of yours in that capacity since they're already in the perception and persuasion business. But, whether it's your people or a survey firm asking the questions, the objective remains the same: identify untruths, false assumptions, unfounded rumors, inaccuracies, misconceptions and any other negative perception that might translate into hurtful behaviors.

Since you need a PR goal that does something about the most serious distortions you discover during your key audience perception monitoring, you must now answer these questions. Is the purpose of this drill to straighten out that dangerous misconception? Correct that gross inaccuracy? Stop that potentially painful rumor cold? Or something else?

With your PR goal in hand, you now must pursue the right strategy to tell you how to proceed, or you won't reach that goal at all. But keep in mind that there are just three strategic options available when it comes to doing something about perception and opinion. Change existing perception, create perception where there may be none, or reinforce it. The wrong strategy pick will taste like beef bouillion on your Canoli, so be sure your new strategy fits well with your new public relations goal. You wouldn't want to select "change" when the facts dictate a strategy of reinforcement.

Next product on the assembly line is a well-crafted message to be sent to members of your target audience. It's difficult to create an actionable message that will help persuade any audience to your way of thinking. What you want now is your strongest writers because s/he must build some very special, corrective language. Words that are not merely compelling, persuasive and believable, but clear and factual if they are to shift perception/opinion towards your point of view and lead to the behaviors you have in mind.

Moving right along with the PR problem solving sequence, we find those communications tactics most likely to carry your message to the attention of your target audience. There are scores that are available. From speeches, facility tours, emails and brochures to consumer briefings, media interviews, newsletters, personal meetings and many others. But you must be certain that the tactics you pick are known to reach folks like your audience members.

Should you wish to avoid too loud a voice with this kind of "corrective" message, you might unveil it during smaller meetings and presentations rather than using higher-profile news releases, as the credibility of any message is fragile and always at stake.

Around this time, someone will mention "progress reports," which will be your signal to begin a second perception monitoring session with members of your external audience. You'll want to use many of the same questions used in the first benchmark session. But now, you will be on red alert for signs that the bad news perception is being altered in your direction.

Should you notice a slackening pace, your program can be accelerated simply by adding more communications tactics as well as increasing their frequencies.

Passing the PR bar - should it ever become necessary - will suggest that the people you deal with behave like everyone else - they act upon their perceptions of the facts they hear about you and your operation. Which, in turn, will suggest that you are constantly planning to do something positive about the behaviors of those key external audiences of yours, thus helping you achieve your managerial objectives.

Please feel free to publish this article and resource box in your ezine, newsletter, offline publication or website. A copy would be appreciated at

Robert A. Kelly 2005

Bob Kelly counsels, writes and speaks to business, non-profit and association managers about using the fundamental premise of public relations to achieve their operating objectives. He has been DPR, Pepsi-Cola Co.; AGM-PR, Texaco Inc.; VP-PR, Olin Corp.; VP-PR, Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.; director of communi- cations, U.S. Department of the Interior, and deputy assistant press secretary, The White House. He holds a bachelor of science degree from Columbia University, major in public relations.



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