Development of Strategic Public Relations

Edward Bernays defined Public Relations as “information given to the public, persuasion directed at the public to modify attitudes and actions, and efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with its publics and of publics with those of that institution” (Hughes L. F., 2009) in 1923. PR was seen to be more of a tactical tool to persuade publics to mirror the attitudes and support the actions of an institution, for example the government, which we would now refer to as using PR as a tool to engage in propaganda. Much of the early PR was about gaining press and publicity for an organisations individual gain. Now, the PRCA states that Public Relations ‘is all about the way organisations communicate with the public, promote themselves, and build a positive reputation and public image.’ (Umebuani, 2018). We now see the public as the powerful ones, especially now due to the social changes, PR is used to build a reputation within organisations so that publics will trust them and their services they are providing. We can see how PR has changed due to its public and is still using tactical PR to ignite positive views through communication and still, persuasion, but with a narrower focus on having a relationship with stakeholders. Unlike other definitions of PR, the PRSA define modern PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” (PRSA, 2018). The first to mention the use of strategic public relations.

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         Strategic communication PR is simply defined as ‘identification and analysis of situation, problem and solutions to further organisational goals’ (Ralph Tench, 2014) meaning using skills such as ‘researching, planning and executing a campaign to improve ethical reputation of organisation.’ (Ralph Tench, 2014) Summed up it is an organisation setting out clear long-term objectives they want to reach through using campaigns or tools such as corporate social responsibility to further their long-term reputation, to be able to achieve this ‘communications has to be in the centre to be optimally effective and for it to support the corporate strategy.’ (Cornelissen, 2017)

         Tactical PR is the short-term public relations tools organisations would use to support that long-term strategic plan. These are all the branches of PR people would associate with the profession at this time; press releases, press events, social media, video, audio, radio, TV and copyrighting among the many. It will call on these tools for different PR activities; Internal communication, media relations, public affairs, community relations, investor relations and issues and crisis management. In short, ‘tactical public relations objectives are developed by analyzing the organization’s strategic plan.’ (Turney, 1998)

             It is key to note that there is a cross over between these basic definitions. An organisation may be using social media to get short term sales and gain customers but with a strategic plan of gaining a positive reputation because of their devotion to an environmental factor and their long-term goal is to develop their corporate social responsibility. Drawing on this idea, we can see this in Iceland’s new banned Christmas advert. (Frost, 2018). Iceland has been known for cheap frozen food for as long as I can remember, so for it to make such a powerful move means one thing, this is their strategic PR in action. They would have known that the advert due to its political messages, would be banned, and then tactically released onto social media, where because of the awareness and worry of its public is of deforestation and palm oil, would receive so much media and online attention. The advert has gone viral because of this clever use of tactical PR, enticing new kinds of consumers to purchase and boost their Christmas profits but an amazing use for a strategic long-term goal of keeping those new relationships going through their dedication to CSR. Now, instead of just thinking about cheap food and a certain stereotype shopping there, Iceland are in the prime position to rival competitors such as Aldi, Morrisons, Asda, Lidl and in my opinion even Tesco, a brand in a more sophisticated band, to keep these lasting relationships. This tactical move is a use of strategic PR and will now resonate with people and enhance their brand in every way, financially to reputationally, meeting their long-term strategic plan. Another broader aim this demonstrates, is not only Iceland being a rival competitor for top brands but, as far as palm oil and conservation is concerned, they are now a leader, having spoken out and making sure the products they sell do not contain palm oil before any legislation has been put in place.

         Getting ahead of legislation can be a great strategic tool, in the UK there are talk of banning wet wipes that are not biodegradable as it is costing the county way too much to unblock our pipes. (Dalton, 2018) Many wet wipe brands say ‘flushable’ when in fact they are not. The organisations like ‘Yes To Wipes’ that are compostable, are the brands that will thrive if legislation is to be put into action. (Hughes S. , 2018) Being aware of the possible legislation is paramount for strategic communications.

        In an organisation you must be certain that what you are releasing to achieve your end goals will not lead to breaking the trust of the publics and therefore act in the opposite way and be detriment to your reputation. For example, if it was to be released after this campaign, that in fact, Iceland do sell or produce products containing palm oil, an organisation would turn to tactical PR as a tool to protect the strategic long-term goal- crisis management. In a strategic plan like this one we can see how it can lead to a short-term influx of sales but also the development of long term financial sustainability. I personally think that having a strong strategic plan like this can help to make it easier to focus on using tactical PR for short-term goals by allowing time and resources for it. Things like promoting the brand, internal communications and social media content creation.

       From the opposite side to Iceland’s strategy, we can see how other brands use someone else’s strategic long-term goal to help them to exceed in their short-term goals, especially financially. We can see a clear example of this from Marmite, who have just released ‘Marmite sprouts’ after Iceland have gone viral, this is a great example of tactical PR on the back of strategic PR, because not only will it generate higher sales but mounts of free publicity for their brand. (Selwood, 2018). It can also work for Iceland’s profitability this season, working exclusively with a top brand, with a new product that will be highly sought after because of its novelty. Partnerships like this can make a brand like Iceland look more prestige thus adding to their strategic plan of enhancing the customer base it supplies for.

         We can see this in our own country, but how is PR developing in other counties globally? To gain an insight into this, the first point of call is to establish a countries position globally, especially their rank economically. Using the countries used to formulate a global understanding of PR and a global capability framework of what is expected of PR professionals and in conjunction with the list provided by the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook, we can see where they are positioned. The USA, UK, Canada, Spain and Australia all sit in the top 15, showing a clear indication that they have a strong economy and are developed countries. Argentina, Sweden, South Africa, and Singapore sit further down in the table, suggesting the developing nature of their economy and of their country. (StatisticsTimes, 2018).

         Most of the countries I have noted as developed are also part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation, which works with countries, both developed and developing. The organisation is dedicated to economic development and their goal is to build a stronger, cleaner and fairer world. (OECD, 2018). Developed countries economies and their awareness of environmental and global issues could have been helped along by this organisation, meaning now they are working with some developing countries we may see these same gradual changes in them and their economy, eventually calling for a greater need for PR, specifically strategic.

       If we take the economy into consideration we can gain a greater understanding of why they use certain types of public relations and communication. Just on the surface, more money, simply equates to more businesses and thus more competition. From this idea, we can see a bigger picture, PR is needed to stand out, in reputation building of all areas of a business and protecting those areas just as well. 

       As PR has developed over the years, we have seen an increase of marketing tools to get a business known and develop their reputations. Although this could be viewed as a strategic move, it is something very natural that PR people do, act in a creative way to deliver a message and communicate with different audiences. What we can see now, is a shift towards PR being a business and management function. Why? Because every strand of business has a long-term goal, a reputation to protect and needs to communicate internally and externally.

    What is interesting is that in the list of country frameworks, what cropped up a lot in the developed countries was, taking Australia as a prime example, the way they want to use their long standing tactical skills of researching, to analyse ‘the social and business environment to provide strategic insights’ (Huddersfield, 2018) which can in turn will help them in ‘identifying appropriate responses to enhance organisational reputation and minimise risks’. (Huddersfield, 2018). A major part of strategic management is understanding the social and environmental trends, and in developed countries PR we can clearly see the rise of corporate social responsibility. CSR has been around for decades, with ‘Howard R. Bowens 1953 publication of Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, considered by many to be the first definitive book on the subject.’ (Schwartz, 2009). The crucial word we see crop up over and over is business, and how CSR has always been categorised as a business function. What we see today, is businesses using their strategic PR planning to act on these social trends to, as the UK’s framework states ‘help align the organisation’s aspirations with societal expectations’ (Huddersfield, 2018) that will help them strategically ‘set clear communications objectives that are aligned to corporate objectives’ (Huddersfield, 2018). If a business has a solid grasp of societal movements, setting clear CSR communications up will allow them to connect their short-term image into corporate objectives of reputation, money and long-term success. Not only will it help in these areas, but as PR practitioners in developed countries move into a business role, it will impact on their communications in other areas, like investor relations.

    Public relations professionals can use their skills to identify a framework of a narrative to keep investors putting money into a business. Supplying them ‘with a clear understanding of the company, its direction, and how it intends to create long-term value.’ (Hooda, 2017)

 By framing a company around their reputation (what they have achieved in the past), their present image and a clear vision of the future it enables investors to trust you, especially when a problem occurs. Investor relations is a business function that is a vital and perfect for a PR professional to perform as they are already used to dealing with various avenues of communication, storytelling, and can use their position to work on building sturdy relationships to keep investor onboard.

      A lot of this is possible because of PR being recognised as an invaluable function in developed countries, with professionals having access to boards and management, and with them even being positioned in these higher roles. It depends on how a business is run, if PR professionals are low in the chain and have certain types of stakeholders with set views they are not in the position to have a management role. In the Global Capability framework, what crops up time again is statements such as ‘offer strategic counsel to executive management’ (Fawkes, 2018) and a major one that is either stated or insinuated in the developed countries individual frameworks is ‘you are part of, or have access to, the executive management team’ (Fawkes, 2018). What we are seeing is PR professionals being a trusted source to steer the organisations and even part of managing them strategic ideas. It shows quite simply, how valued PR is for developed countries, and how many skills they have, to be able to not only advise, but be in those higher roles. For me, it makes complete sense, PR professionals now have skills from all aspects of an organisation so who better to put at the top of the chain to understand how to position a business into the right direction, see a crisis before it occurs, and manage reputation from all angles.

     We can see that developed countries have seen the value in using PR higher up in an organisation, but it begs the question why haven’t developing countries? A lot of strategic PR I believe is built around societal changes. But in a lot of developing countries there are more barriers to break down, religious views may be stronger, the government more lenient or in fact stricter, they may not have been given the awareness of the environmental climate. Developed countries PR shows they have an acute awareness of their macro environment and trends, but what we have to consider about less developed  countries is that in regards to using the EPISTLE template, ‘people who are deprived of relevant technology will become increasingly disenfranchised and unable to engage’. (Ralph Tench, 2014). All of these reasons can contribute to the way PR is used to communicate with stakeholders, if businesses are not communicating, they are unable to reach their full potential and this may be a contributing factor to their economic state.

     One thing that clearly runs through all countries in their frameworks is them wanting to develop more skills and continuing to develop in their practice. A common thread is that all of the countries have acquired a PR body. Some countries have a large practice population like the UK, USA and Australia. While others have a lower practice population like South Africa, Spain, Singapore and surprisingly Canada. What the study noted about Singapore was that they want to gain more understanding of PR and set clear goals, Spain has no specific communication degrees, Sweden although having 15,000 practicing PR professionals, are still trying to change the idea of PR being ‘spin’ and more about ‘information’ and Canada want to gain more professional links and social media. Having a strong PR body can be a key initiator of developing a strong PR community and we can see in the USA, even though they have 333,000 practicing PR professionals they still seek training in emerging media and tech. (Fawkes, 2018) From looking at the correlation between the PR bodies, the number of people practicing, and the development of strategic PR globally, I believe a public body is a main influencer. By having a strong community it can bridge the gap that, like Spain, may not have communication degrees but can gain insight from these bodies to excel in their profession. When they have a PR body and a big PR community it allows them to keep learning and adapting to change – especially technological advances and social media. Argentina states wanting ‘to know the state of the art of communication technologies, channels and platforms and how to use them’ (Huddersfield, 2018). If Argentina, who already have a good amount of practicing PR professionals could connect with other bodies we could see a shift in the way they use their communication. Whereas countries like Canada, even though their economic development is strong, may find that training through their PR body will lift their numbers in people practicing PR.

     I believe that the framework itself may be able to close the gap between the countries, if they allow themselves to look at other countries development and connect with global PR communities they can learn from one another’s insight. The study itself may help with building the frameworks countries use and could be a push in the direction of strategic change. Connecting with PR professionals around the world will build awareness and more skills, especially as they said that they want to act ethically and build trust, they may see what others are doing with CSR. By developing countries especially, working to the framework they can not only catch up with the way developed countries apply their PR, but unlike having to slowly get there over many years, skip the middle and jump straight to practicing strategic PR at an advanced level.

     With PR in the UK taking on a much more strategic role in organisations, it questions what skills are needed for people like me now, and others in the foreseeable future to enter the profession. Like the Global Body of Knowledge Project suggests, employers are not just seeking competency, demonstrating they have the ability to complete a task, have the skills and knowledge to support them in their career, and the right attitude and behaviours, but must be all round competent. The industry is calling for candidates that can show, no matter the situation, that they can make clear, professional judgements.

   What I noticed, in the list provided by GBOK, the lists of knowledge that entry-level to senior roles, were practically the same. (Global alliance, 2016) Public relations has gone through a major shift in the way it operates and therefore it will only get harder to enter the profession, especially if we need to meet the same standards as people that have worked in the industry for years. Right now, I do believe we are at the peak to enter the industry because we have the advantage of entering as the shift is in motion, we are aware of strategic management, crisis, basic communication skills, reputation management, trust, trend identification and social media. One thing I have noticed from the research mentioned, is a running theme of planning, as a new generation we are aware of the Barcelona principles, that show how vital setting goals, measuring and evaluating communications towards an overall strategy is. I feel this is something we can add to not only the business we enter but to boost the value of PR.

    We are becoming increasingly aware of business elements, but I do believe that in a few years entry level professionals will need to be more equipped in financial strategy, law (national, regional and local), issue identification at a high level, being able to not only supply business and marketing functions but also internally be able to align HR with PR goals, and above all digital literacy. ‘It goes without saying that new skills—data and analytics, social sciences, content creation in its many forms—will be more important going forward.’ (University of Southern California’s Center for Public Relations and The Holmes Report, 2016) Meaning as we already know, the importance of psychological aspects of PR, I believe psychology and sociology will go on to be a major player in propelling us forward.

    All in all, I believe to ensure competence there will need to be a strong sense of intellectual curiosity and SEO. The industry may start to look to marketers and business professionals to enhance their organisations as ‘finding the right talent is by far the most critical factor in the PR industry’s future growth’ (University of Southern California’s Center for Public Relations and The Holmes Report, 2016), however I believe that as PR has already grown so much and PR students learn these skills that although it may be harder, ‘industry leaders still value traditional communications skills but are searching for more strategy, creativity and diversity’ (University of Southern California’s Center for Public Relations and The Holmes Report, 2016) which I believe we all encompass, so instead of looking elsewhere, a PR practitioner will hold all of these transferable skills. Although there is a major shift happening I believe ‘PR is at the heart of modern life and is valued by all sectors of society.’ (Trevor Morris, 2016)


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