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.