Public relations is comprised of various functions that are used for building a brand among stakeholders. These functions exist on a wide range of course, as the strategy and tactics used by each PR practitioner depends on their own unique situation and set of goals. How one agency practices PR can be very different from how another practices, and as a result, it can be difficult to understand the purpose of public relations.
To help explain how we personally understand PR, here are five quotes to live by:
1. “Advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for.” – Helen Woodward
Helen Woodward was a pioneer during the early development of advertising, believed to be one of the first women to hold the title of “executive” in the United State (Kahn, para. 1). What Woodward is referring to in this quote is the mystique and sanctity of public relations.
Opposed to other departments of business (such as advertising), public relations has minimal top-down control over outcomes. It can often take unforeseeable detours, because any relationship worth building is an especially sensitive and complex endeavor. Consequently, PR incurs more risk — requiring careful planning, calculated research, and a meaningful investment of one’s time and resources. It can often seem more unpredictable and chaotic than other facets of marketing.
However, public relations offers more reward for businesses trying to establish their brand. Forbes contributor Robert Wynne cites a Nielsen study which concluded that “PR is almost 90% more effective than advertising” (Wynne, para. 6). This is due to the organic and grassroot nature of public relations, opposed to force and artificial growth. Stakeholders trust PR more because it’s a two-way symmetric conversation that is built from the bottom-up and grows naturally. It flourishes from trust and creates a genuine relationship between business and consumer.
Public relations should be taken with the utmost sincerity. It’s the most effective means for brand building and demands the most effort and determination. So much so, that it may seem as if divine intervention helps determine the ultimate outcome.
Perhaps Helen Woodward didn’t see her workplace as an advertising agency, but as a monastery. And we seek to obtain that same sense of occupational holiness.
- “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
The inspirational poet Maya Angelou might not have been directly involved in the profession of public relations, but her wisdom certainly extends to the realm of strategic communications. In this quote, Angelou is saying that words and actions by themselves are futile, and what’s truly important is the reception.
This connection between Maya Angelou’s quote and PR is made by longtime public relations CEO Nancy Marshall, explaining that “In the end, the perception of the end user matters more — much more” (Marshall, para. 5). It doesn’t matter what businesses want, or what they think is best; it’s about the people that these businesses are meant to serve. A particular action might have value to a business owner, but it’ll translate to absolutely nothing if it’s not meaningful to the end users.
Success is ultimately contingent on knowing one’s audience and what resonates with them personally. How that is achieved can be forgotten over time, but what will unmistakably remain is that gut feeling that people have for a brand.
We don’t dilute quality with superfluous bells and whistles; we satisfy customers with what they really want. We build relationships that create personal bonds with brands.
- “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” – Bernard Baruch
This quote comes from one of the richest and most powerful people of the early twentieth century. Bernard Baruch made a fortune from the New York Stock Exchange, and was advisors to both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt during their presidencies. Needless to say, Baruch worked with a vast network of successful business people and politicians — most of which were great listeners according to him.
The art of listening is undoubtedly important for strategic communication professionals. Without listening to others, businesses can become out of touch and obsolete. It’s how they learn to evolve with the ever-changing wants and needs of society and remain relevant.
According to Professor Shannon Bowen at the University of South Carolina, “Listening is a form of informal research that can be incorporated into all we do in public relations” (Bowen, para. 5). In other words, gathering information doesn’t necessarily require extensive research or advanced technology. PR practitioners can be able to make informed decisions just by being attentive to their stakeholder’s needs.
It’s important to look beyond one’s own perspective, as it can be limited and riddled with bias. Using everyone around as sources of information can create a more accurate understanding of each given situation, which directly translates to success.
The clients always come first — their voice before our own.
- “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” – Warren Buffet
It should be safe to say that Warren Buffet knows a thing or two about being successful. And so when one of the richest people in the world gives advice, it should be taken with great consideration.
It’s a simple fact in life that it’s easier to tear something down than it is to build it up. It could take hundreds of years to build a city, but only a minute to start a fire and destroy it all. Same is true for one’s reputation. CNBC further clarifies that “a whole career can be ruined easily no matter the effort over the years” (Snyder, para. 4). Every development that is made is fragile and impermanent, which is the conundrum that public relations professionals deal with daily. One unethical act, offensive tweet, or simple misstep can end an entire organization and brand. Thus, Buffet suggests being cautious and mindful.
The best way to do this is by being humble and having integrity. Having a consistent work ethic and philosophy provides businesses with steady growth, while taking shortcuts and not doing things the right way will inevitably result in downfall. Every step needs to be painstakingly calculated.
The pursuit of success is full of temptation, but succumbing to these impulses are not worth the risk. As competent PR professionals, we never let their guard down or take anything for granted — we only work harder, and harder, and harder.
- “Publicity is the very soul of justice. It is the keenest spur to exertion, and the surest of all guards against improbity” – Jeremy Bentham
18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham dedicated most of his work to ethics. He’s considered the father of modern utilitarianism and contributed to the evolution of the legal system that exists today. And in this quote, he believes that public accountability ensures a harmonious society.
According to Regina Luttrell in A Practical Guide to Ethics in Public Relations, “Every profession has a moral purpose. Medicine has health. Law has justice. Public relations has harmony—social harmony” (Luttrell, p. 1). In theory, public relations is meant to create social cohesion between producers and consumers. It’s the open line of communication between the two where a relationship can manifest. And as Bentham suggests, this is especially true because publicizing one’s actions and intent deters wrongdoing.
Transparency is a hallmark of public relations, as corruption typically dwells in secrecy. Being honest and proactively telling the truth creates a window of one’s intent. And once intent is known, trust is bestown. These are the seeds of a harmonious relationship and functional society — the very purpose of public relations.
The more transparent and honest we are, the better our work will be.
Bowen, S. (2018, June 22). Reasons to listen — and really listen! PR Week. https://www.prweek.com/article/1485833/reasons-listen-really-listen
Kahn, S. M. (n.d.). Helen Rosen Woodward. Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/woodward-helen-rosen
Luttrell, R., & Ward, J. (2018). A practical guide to ethics in public relations. Rowman & Littlefield.
Marshal, N. (2021, June 2). Maya Angelou is right: Branding is how people feel about you. SmartBrief. https://www.smartbrief.com/original/2021/06/maya-angelou-right-branding-how-people-feel-about-you
Snyder, B. (2017, May 1). 7 insights from legendary investor Warren Buffett. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/01/7-insights-from-legendary-investor-warren-buffett.html
Wynne, R. (2014, July 8). The Real Difference Between PR And Advertising. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwynne/2014/07/08/the-real-difference-between-pr-and-advertising-credibility/?sh=4c2e02512bb9