Definition of PR More Than Nuance

I recently read an article in a local business publication about public relations professionals adapting to social media. In an early paragraph, the article was framed by pointing out that public relations firms “are charged with portraying the image of its clients in an optimistic light to its targeted audience.”


I reached out to the young reporter, new to the publication and to a beat that includes public relations. It will be great to have more stories explaining what public relations professionals do to an audience of business professionals in other disciplines. I’m all about educating people on public relations.

But that’s why I reached out to the reporter. As an educator, I said, I don’t have a hidden agenda or anyone I’m representing.  I just want to represent the profession of PR, and help her coverage by providing a more complete, honest and ethical definition of it. She responded with thanks, and I hope she’ll call on me in the future.

I also spoke with some professionals about the article at an event shortly after it was published. One, who came into PR  from another field, seemed indifferent and said “Look, I work in the field but I don’t understand its nuances like you do.”

But this is more than nuance. Journalists and professionals need to have a proper conception of what public relations is. Without that, the frame and foundation will lead to shaky assertions and unfortunate conclusions about what public relations is, and what it is not. We’ll have media portrayals that stereotypically minimize or demonize the profession. We’ll have people doing PR incompletely and unethically, giving more fodder to the misperceptions of the field.

I’m not some persnickety academic. I know many professionals who agree passionately about this. Of course people have debated the definition of public relations for years, but we left behind “image” and “optimistic light” in the 1920s. I know this from my own PR history research, including “First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s.” 

Here are some points about the developing definition and practice of public relations over the years that need to be understood today by both journalists who cover the field and people who aim to practice it:
  • Ivy Lee, an early practitioner, wrote in 1906 a “declaration of principles” and gave an address in 1925 to journalism educators called “Publicity: Some of the Things It Is and Is Not” asserting that public relations is honest and has a responsibility to the people beyond that of the client. 
  • Arthur W. Page was an early practitioner and the first to hold a vice president of public relations position (at AT&T in 1927). From his many speeches and writings other professionals gleaned a set of 7 principles. These are touted today as the Page Principles by the Arthur W. Page Society named in his honor. I often tell my students to memorize the first two–tell the truth and prove it with action. This directly contradicts the old and suspect “positive light” definition.
  •  Jump ahead to 2012 when the Public Relations Society of America re-defined the field as “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Read about the definition process online.
So, rather than equate PR with “image”, which can be created and deceptive, we should stress that PR is about “reputation” which must be earned and is based on actual public experience and is inherently honest. Rather than talk about “positive light” we should talk about relationships between organizations and their stakeholders that benefit all. PR is about more than “reaching publics,” it is about dialogue, listening and what we call “two-way symmetrical” communication. It is way beyond mere publicity. It is about counseling management not just on what they say, but what they do.
The definition of a field is not nuance. It is vital. It is the philosophy that informs and guides practice. It is the difference between being a mere practitioner and being a professional.

Understanding Nonprofit Donors’ Preferred Types, Qualities and Sources of Information

I was happy to speak to a sold-out crowd of 60 nonprofit professionals last week about how to reach out to potential donors based on the information they are interested in, not just what nonprofit organizations want to send them.

Discussing nonprofit donor information preferences at
the GVSU Johnson Center for Philanthropy.

The presentation was at the GVSU Johnson Center for Philanthropy, as part of its “Brown Bag Lunch and Learn” series.

I was sharing data and information from my chapter “Nonprofit Financial Communication: Donors’ Preferred Information Types, Qualities and Sources.” The chapter is included in the recently published Handbook of Financial Communications and Investor Relations. The study of the information nonprofit donors seek is an extension of my research on individual investors when they are considering purchasing a stock: “The Value of Public Relations in Investor Relations: Individual Investors’ Preferred Information Types, Qualities and Sources”.

Attendees were interested in the results of my survey of a sample of 173 donors to a large community foundation. The book chapter includes a lot of statistical analysis of results (which can be read if you acquire the book via the link above). In the presentation I hit the high notes of practical take-aways about the types of information (i.e. content), qualities of information (ranging from length to tone and more) and the sources of information (meaning the people or communication tactics). The brief results are as follows:

Top preferred types of information:

  1. Mission of the organization
  2. Impact of the organization and the donations received
  3. Where money is spent by category
  4. Location of organization (local, regional or national)
Top preferred qualities of information:
  1. Personalized appeal
  2. Focused on organizational need
  3. Stressing a specific giving opportunity versus general gift to organization
  4. Focused more on results of organizational work vs its need for support
Top preferred sources of information:
  1. The organization’s web site
  2. The organization’s newsletter
  3. Other donors (i.e. word of mouth)
  4. The organization’s annual report
  5. Conversations with staff of the organization (ie interpersonal)
It is interesting to note that the news media does not rank highly in the responses of donors as a source of information for donors to nonprofits. Media relations and publicity are helpful, but it turns out not the most persuasive form of communication strategy when trying to gain attention and raise funds. The news media was valued, but came in after other sources of information when donors were asked what was the “most useful” source of information and presented with people and organizations, not tactics. Their response in order of preference was:
  1. The nonprofit organization itself
  2. Other donors
  3. A charity expert (such as a financial planner)
  4. The news media
When so many people confuse “PR” for publicity, it is important to note that the strategic communications and relationship building aspects of public relations–the real root of the profession–are most effective in the minds of donors.
In my study, and to a degree in my Johnson Center presentation, I went over the association of variables. In other words, when donors are looking for specific types of organizations, they look to specific sources. I also explained that when they want certain qualities of information they favor specific sources. These are illustrated in the latter slides in my presentation, which is available on my Slideshare page.
The room full of nonprofit pros had a good variety of questions and observations. In the end, the discussion showed that public relations, and nonprofit public relations and fundraising, is far more sophisticated and strategic than “getting the word out” or “just raising awareness.” Nearly everyone said they left with something specific they could apply back at the office, which made me more motivated when I got back to my office.

Award Winner Discusses School PR

Michelle Ready was named ‘Communicator of the Year”
by the Michigan School Public Relations Association.

I was interested to read recently that Michelle Ready, director of Communications and Integrated Marketing for Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (OAISD), was named Communicator of the Year by the Michigan School Public Relations Association.

You can get the full story of the award from the OAISD press release.

Not only is it nice that a West Michigan professional earned this state-wide honor, but I am glad that an area of public relations–school PR–got a little attention.

As I tell my students, and whenever I speak, public relations is a very diverse profession. There is public relations, and there are public relations professionals, in all three sectors–private, nonprofit, and government–no matter what the job title is called.

As for school public relations, I did a video about education PR a few years ago with Ron Koehler of the Kent County ISD and at the time president of the National Schools Public Relations Association (NSPRA). The video was part of a series I did to show in my Fundamentals of Public Relations class to demonstrate the wide variety of PR practice and job opportunities. You can see the video and others in my YouTube Channel under  the ‘PR in Practice’ playlist.

I reached out to Ready to congratulate her and ask a few questions about school PR, where she has made her career since graduating from Hope College in 1992, where public relations was her favorite class and her aspiration was to work for a PR firm. But after graduation and assignment at the ISD via a temp agency exposed her to the education field and she fell in love with the people and culture at the ISD. A full-time position opened soon after, and other than a three-month stint at a PR firm, she returned to the ISD realizing that was a better fit.

“It’s rewarding for me to work in an industry dedicated to human development,” Ready said. “I love knowing that my work impacts children and families. I get to experience special moments like when students and educators celebrate together milestones that have been reached, or the excitement of students diving into a new learning opportunity and seeing how it builds confidence. I believe our teachers are under-appreciated, so it’s important in my work to focus on ways to elevate public perception by sharing with our communities the many miracles that are happening in and out of the classroom, every day.”

The PR work for an ISD is diverse. Providing services to all school districts within the county, and to individuals from birth to senior citizen, can get complicated. Primary publics include students, parents/guardians, community members, tax-payers, business/industry leaders, community agencies, educators, school board members, legislators and media. 

“As a regional service agency, we are positioned to help districts anticipate the impact of important education issues and help them respond in ways that effectively inform their school families and communities and garner support,” Ready said. “We provide leadership, counsel and technical assistance as needed. At times, we assist a single district with their unique needs, and other times we help facilitate common messaging for all of our member districts. Our team also strives to advance OAISD’s role and reputation in the education industry as we participate in a variety of multi-region and statewide initiatives.”

 Like any area of public relations practice, school PR has its own set of challenges. Among them are the ongoing conversations nationally and locally about the quality of public education, in which perception and reality can be at odds. Also, Ready says it is an ongoing effort to educate key state legislative officials given term limits at the state level. Staying ahead of the message is difficult because of social media and the fact that education is a perennial hot topic.

“As PR professionals, we always try to be proactive in communication, however that’s becoming increasingly challenging in this era of technology and information at everyone’s fingertips, all of the time” Ready explains. “Education is an emotional topic because it involves youth. With social media, there’s a great deal of information flowing between people at any given hour, and there’s no shortage of misinformation. It can be challenging to dispel myths before they get wheels.”

One example of a current broad based PR initiative is “Ottawa Area Schools, Doing More. Together”, an effort led by Ready and her team at the ISD. It involves collaboration with traditional public schools, public school academies and faith-based schools. Through this initiative, they are sharing stories that highlight the high-quality education that’s taking place in local communities in an effort to build partnerships with business and community groups, elevate public perception, and increase community support for schools in the region. 

“We use a fully integrated approach to building partnerships, creating awareness and fundraising,” Ready said. “We do presentations to Chambers, Rotary Clubs, businesses, economic development groups and other agencies, as well as community events. We publicize through social media, billboards, radio and television, YouTube pre-roll, sharing our written and video stories that are housed on the website ” .

The campaign can also be followed at and

Congratulations to Michelle Ready for being named Communicator of the Year, and thanks to her as one more PR professional demonstrating the value of the public relations profession in another specific setting.

Community Relations Important Even for Well-intended Nonprofit Programs

This article in MiBiz about the Grand Rapids based nonprofit AmplifyGR needing to address community mistrust caught my eye. It’s another example of a news story that does not use the words “public relations” or “PR” even though it is the essence of the issue at hand.

The organization was working to develop 35 acres in southeast Grand Rapids as part of an effort to increase jobs, housing, education and health care in the area. But it recently cancelled community engagement meetings and took a cue to slow down and “develop community relationships” before moving ahead.

This is a typical mistake of even the most well-intended nonprofit efforts–swooping in with solutions before fully understanding the problem, delivering programs without listening to those intended to be served.

Corporations engage in what is known as community relations (or they should) as a way to be less aloof and perceived as merely motivated by profit in the geographic areas where they have a plant, office or store. This helps build mutual relationships with publics beyond merely customers, employees and government officials.

It is always good for nonprofits to do the same, and not assume that their good programs are welcomed and understood by the communities they serve. There is a large operational risk of looking arrogant and insulting if the community members are treated as targets rather than partners.

Good community relations practice involves doing more thorough research of the community culture and not just the broad issue or problems to address. This could include:

  • getting a sense of the community perception about what their most pressing needs are;
  • finding out what has been tried before, by whom, with what result;
  • what are the preferred methods of communication;
  • what ideas do community members have to solve the problems they themselves have identified;
  • to what degree do community members want to partner, lead, or simply benefit from any resulting programs;
  • what community partners would be approved and appreciated partners in the community;
  • what should be the longevity of the program, is it permanent or is their a defined exit timeline and method.
As a general rule, nonprofits  should start by listening and not announcing. It’s fundamental community relations, a vital form of public relations. And it is critical to reputation and operational success.
It seems from the MiBiz article that AmplifyGR has taken a step back and is approaching the planning more humbly. It will be a good case study to see the results.

PR is the Talent that Attracts and Retains Talent

An article in last week’s Grand Rapids Business Journal alerted me to another study about “talent.” It’s become almost cliche’ to say that CEOs value “attracting and retaining top talent.” This study was no different in that regard, but it did have a refreshing emphasis on communication as a tool to acquire and keep a skilled workforce.

The 2017 Gallagher Benefits Strategy and Benchmarking Survey  had the usual discussion of benefits, salary and quality of life. But near the end it had this gem: communication is a key factor in employee satisfaction. What I especially appreciated was a comment from one of the executives of Gallagher, an insurance, risk management and consulting firm. He noted the need for a comprehensive communication strategy to communicate the solutions human resources provides, but that only 15% of companies have such a comprehensive strategy.

This not a revelation to people who work in or teach public relations, particularly those who focus on what is typically called internal or employee relations. It’s a specialty form of public relations, focused on a specific public–employees. When I teach public relations management and other courses, I devote some time to the objectives and strategies of employee relations. I know more than a few PR professionals, including a growing number of former students, whose full-time job is to manage internal communications.

There is an increasing number of books on employee communication, including the recent “Excellence in Internal Communication Management” by professors Rita Men and Shannon Bowen (writing this blog post reminded me to order it!). The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), which has special interest sections for various specialties within the broad profession, has long had an Employee Communications Section.

All of this is to say that it’s good to see the CEOs and management consultancies are understanding that communication is vital to the talent problem, and that communication is not just “getting the word out” but requires strategy that is tailored to the public and the goal. This comes from educated and practiced public relations professionals. They may be embedded in the human resources department, or they assist HR from their separate PR department. But however it’s structured, a PR professional is both a tool in the talent acquisition and retention of an organization and a form of talent in it’s own right.

The fact that PR “talent” is also sought is evident in the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that there will be a 6% increase in demand for “PR specialists” between 2014 and 2024. I think it will be higher if the definition of “what they do” on the BLS site went beyond “maintaining a favorable image” and “sending news releases.” That may have summed it  up in 1914 when “public relations” was new. But the profession is far more diverse than that now, including employee relations.

I would hope that the focus on “talent” will help CEOs and others see the full breadth of what public relations is and can do for a company. One day managers will place as much emphasis on employee relations as they do on consumer relations.

As one example. consider the simple “employee life cycle” that mimics cycles for products or consumer engagement. To truly attract and retain talent, companies need to be thinking about what and how they communicate through all stages:

  • before even hiring, reputation matters. Potential employees look at how current employees are treated, and people talk! The goal is to become an employer of choice in your industry or region, the place top talent would love to work if possible. 
  • when hiring, process matters. This is the initial relationship formation stage. Communication needs to be frequent, transparent, and respectful.
  • the employment stage is obviously the crucial one, and must go beyond dissemination of information and policy. That’s necessary, but the objective needs to be motivation, morale, and retention. More than cheerleading is required.
  • the exit, whether by retirement, job change or termination, must be managed wisely. Good companies do exit interviews to understand why an employee is leaving, and to get honest reflection on their time with the company. Excellent companies have alumni employee programs and keep in touch years after employment, recognizing that former employees are their best ambassadors in talent acquisition. 
While much of the emphasis on attracting talent focuses on employees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), I would hope CEOs in those and other industries see the wisdom and benefit in attracting and retaining PR talent as well.