A Re-education in PR… why we do what we do

posted by Brendan Hodgson

I spoke recently to a group of journalism students at Algonquin College – my alma mater, and a good J-school. The topic, of course, was PR. The intent was to highlight to the students that more than one career path existed for inquisitive, competent, intelligent writers, and to show them that public relations (when done right) is more than what the media often portray it to be.

A couple of questions stood out, the first being: “Is it right for PR people (and the companies they work for) to withhold information from the media?”

My response: Absolutely. Once the shock and moral indignation had passed, I then proceeded to give some context. Bad things do actually happen to good companies. And when they do, people affected — be they employees, families of employees, community leaders, customers, suppliers or others — shouldn’t hear about it through the media (unless, of course, there is a risk to public safety). Rather, whenever and wherever possible, they should hear about it from the source. It is the right and responsible thing to do – and it is what we counsel our clients. That’s not to say the media shouldn’t also be made aware of what has happened. Indeed they should, at the appropriate time. And, in many instances, issuing a statement via the media is legally required. What it means is about taking responsibility and demonstrating respect for the people who really matter the most.

Along the same lines, another student asked why, if a company was so upstanding, did it even need a PR or communications department? (or put more bluntly, why does your job even exist?). How hard is it to tell the truth?

And strangely enough, for a brief moment, I was stumped. It’s an interesting question, particularly given the increasing emphasis clients and stakeholders alike – customers, shareholders, employees, activists, etc - are placing on transparency and accountability, and the dawning realization that in this inter-connected world, bad news can no longer be shoved under the carpet. It will come out.

The fact of the matter is that, because of these very issues, the communications department is more important than ever. An organization’s license to operate is being increasingly driven by its reputation, that being the sum of how ALL audiences view your company — as an employer, a creator of value, a corporate citizen, or as a provider of goods and services. Willingly providing these stakeholders with the information they need to inform their perceptions and decisions is vital to demonstrating transparency and accountability. Communications cannot be viewed an afterthought. Information dissemintation must be managed so as to ensure the right information – authentic, consistent and focused – gets to the right audience at the right time. When you do that, you build trust. And when you build trust, you build relationships. And that is what PR is about.

Sometimes it requires getting back to the basics to remember why we do what we do.



Richard Bailey

Innocent questions are often the tough ones… But your questioner alludes to a common perception (argued by the Naked Conversations authors). To paraphrase it crudely: command and control is dead, therefore public relations is dead. I don’t agree either, though I do feel that some agency functions are dying. Press release distribution, anyone?

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