ITL #155 Professional accountability: why PR?

4 years, 6 months ago


Communicators must be able to “connect the dots” to demonstrate the direct impact of PR activity on specific campaign goals, such as boosting sales. By Kirk Hazlett.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the value that public relations can or should bring to the table. Seems like no matter how much those of us who practice PR for a living try to make a case for it, someone always asks that important but equally telling question, “Why do I need you?”


Important question? Yes. Any smart business owner should always ask “why?” for anything he or she is considering. The Boy Scout motto says it well: “Be prepared.”


Telling question? Double yes. As my favorite line from the classic Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke goes: “What we have here is failure to communicate.”


I’m not suggesting that all of us are miserable communicators. But I would suggest that perhaps we often assume that the other side of the relationship understands what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what it means for them…and they don’t.


Deciphering meaning

One problem, from my dual perspectives of PR professional and PR professor, has been that the way we historically described the practice of public relations left many “outsiders” scratching their heads as they tried to decipher the actual meaning.


Here’s one example created by Rex Harlow, pioneer public relations educator and founder of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in 1976: “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; helps management to keep informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication as its principal tools.”


Other, less convoluted, descriptions have been introduced since that time and finally, in 2012, the Public Relations Society of America unveiled a revised definition of the term “public relations” that was cleverly developed through a global crowdsourcing initiative and, therefore, was a reflection of how the “world” viewed the profession and the practice: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”



While this newest rendition, in my simplistic way of thinking, can still be a bit mysterious for those who are not part-and-parcel of our livelihood, it does make it clear what our bottom-line focus should be…relationship-building. What is implied but not specifically stated is that relationship-building should lead to a positive impact on an organization’s bottom line.


That being said, there’s still one vital step in the process. We have to help those for whom we provide our services understand how we’re adding that value. And what this means is that we truly have to understand their business drivers…what defines success for them?


Moving the needle

We then must clearly show how our efforts led to an increase in activity for them or, as I like to term it, “how did we ‘move the needle’?”


In one of my own former positions as Communications Director for the Blood Bank of Hawaii, that “increase” meant not just that we meet the daily needs of our state’s many hospitals, but that we add to the number of individuals voluntarily donating blood and blood products for patients in those hospitals.


Very simply put, achieving this increase in the number of donors meant that we would be able to meet hospitals’ needs without having to go back to the same donor pool again and again. More donors meant less danger of donor burnout. And we would be better able to control operational costs. A win-win for all.


But, in order to get operational budget approval from our board of directors, I had to show how our PR efforts contributed to this positive activity, which meant that I had to track and correlate PR programming to changes in donor participation. Fortunately, I was able to document our activity and could “connect the dots.”


Coming up short

And that last bit…“connect the dots”…is where we come up short from time to time. We excitedly showcase media hits or online activity while our boss or client is waiting for us to say just how much sales increased as a result of that activity.


What this means is that, in addition to our external relationship-building efforts, we have to establish and nurture internal relationships with our marketing and sales teams so that we know, like they do, what has changed…and can determine whether or not that change can be linked to our PR activities.


Accountability is a key element of successful public relations practice. PR is not just about getting “good ink”; it’s about being able, with quantifiable, measurable results, to answer that inevitable question: “Why PR?”

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The Author

Kirk Hazlett

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication at Curry College in Milton, MA, where he teaches undergraduate public relations courses, oversees the public relations concentration, and serves as Faculty Adviser for the Curry College Public Relations Student Association.

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