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Friday, December 5, 2008

Public Relations versus Advertising in a Recession

While you can make the argument that both are necessary at any time, when business forecasts are gloomy and the economic future uncertain, many businesses make the decision to sacrifice one form of communication over the other.  Usually, it’s PR that goes.  That’s because the public relations industry has set itself up for failure, and it’s done so both from a practitioner (to be discussed in a later blog) and the academic side. 

On the educational front, PR is taught from a large organizational point-of-view, filled with theory, abstracts, and APA conformity.  There’s an implied assumption business leaders have the sophistication to understand the PR function.   This is a dangerous assumption.  Not all business leaders completely understand what public relations is.  But, the real failing is that PR is not taught at colleges with any recognition that most of the businesses in the United States are comprised of small to middle-sized organizations, where there is an even more pervasive lack of understanding regarding the role of PR.  Too often, small to middle-size business leaders define PR as publicity.  They also tend to make it subsidiary to the advertising/marketing function, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy:  reducing PR to the technician/publicist role.  If a PR person at a small organization is simply putting out releases, how does showing the boss a number of clips tangibly relate to the company’s bottom line?   When times are tough, the business leader will ask him or herself, “Why am I paying the agency (or on staff person) all this money just to get my company’s name in the paper?”

Advertising is much easier to judge.  Take an ad out, put in some lost leader pricing, throw in a coupon, and then wait for the response.  If store traffic is increased, the ad is successful.  If the store looks like a ghost town, even after the ad’s placement, the ad has failed.  The client ultimately moves on to a new agency.  There’s a certain black and whiteness to advertising.  Small businesses expect the same result from their public relations, but the field has so much gray to it.   Too many working in PR simply haven’t made their clients aware of the differences (or don’t know it themselves).  PR works when it’s strategically planned.  If a business – even a small one – has a goal to increase sales by a certain percentage, then a PR plan designed to increase sales will not only help achieve the goal, but cultivate relationships that lead to more sustainable and long term growth.   More important, a well designed PR plan will help a business maintain its current customers.  Since most of any business’s sales come from existing customers, keeping them will cost less than trying to gain new business.

PR graduates should understand not all businesses are highly vertical structures, and the other approximately 90 percent of the companies in this country are small, horizontal entities that also need public relations.  For the survival and growth of the PR industry, small to medium sized business owners have to be educated by current and future PR practitioners about the proper role of public relations in a small business’s communication plans.

1:30 pm est 

2008.12.01

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Larry with Lorena Ochoa During a Recent Event at Montclair State University

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