I’ve recently returned from a “flying” visit to the jewel-like, antebellum city of Savannah, Georgia, the location of the 2007 LERN Leaders’ strategic planning retreat. The mandate of this international, non-profit association is to provide training and consulting to providers of lifelong learning programs. You might ask how someone who spends her working day practising public relations fits into this mix—and you wouldn’t be the first to do so.
My involvement with the Learning Resources Network (LERN) dates back 10 years, when I was first recruited to sit on its newish association education council. LERN was working to grow its primarily “higher education” (i.e., universities and colleges) organizational membership base to include other areas, and it identified (professional and trade) associations as significant providers of continuing education. The accounting association where I work (which a double-digit number of years ago instituted mandatory continuing professional development to maintain the CGA designation’s currency) was identified as a “best practices” example, so I was asked to contribute to the knowledge base and development, specifically to the association sector, but also to LERN overall.
Ten years ago my primary area of responsibility was member communications, including the marketing of our professional development programs to constituents. (Most LERN volunteers are senior-level programmers or marketers.) After chairing the council for several years, I was elected to LERN’s board, where (effective this weekend) I’ve commenced the final leg of a four-year term; this includes a third consecutive year as its secretary/treasurer (working for an association of professional accountants, it’s assumed I have a handle on strategic financial management; happily, LERN’s balance sheet remains resoundingly in the black).
During a segment of the intensive Saturday morning information session, each invited participant shared major initiatives undertaken over the past year. Unlike the others (who focused on things such as re-engineering departments based on key ratios for success, innovative new programs that anticipated or mirrored trends in the field of lifelong education, plus generational programming and marketing initiatives), I detailed examples of our education outreach programs to targeted external publics. At dinner that evening, some of my colleagues asked what my position in public relations entailed. Interestingly, I found it easier to describe what I didn’t do, rather than what I did.
Which brings me to the heart of this post: before determining (and claiming) a more defined “position description” for public relations, I’d appreciate the help of PRC readers in identifying what PR practitioners and consultants don’t do for the most part. (Note: I recognize that strategic communication and public relations management comprises an integrated function, with many of the key players possessing complementary skill sets and developed competencies. That having been said, I’m of the opinion that defined “public relators” probably spend at least 75 per cent of the time “promoting rapport and goodwill between a person, firm or institution and other persons, firms or institutions that constitute defined publics.” We can work on a better definition later.)
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Subsets of Responsibility
I think subsets of the public relations role include media relations, publicity, public affairs, (external) speechwriting/presentations and—in some instances—investor relations. Are there others?
Some areas I go back and forth on regarding primary ownership, include corporate social responsibility and (yes) social media. I’ve never received a satisfactory definition of what corporate communications includes, so I’m leaving it out of both lists at this point.
Not Public Relations
I don’t believe the following qualifies as (pure) public relations (I’ve sketched in definitions):
Advertising (the act or practice of calling public attention to one’s product or services, usually through the media, which often includes sales promotion and definitely involves payment for space and/or time).
Marketing (the art of identifying and then providing a product or a service at a profit, with elements including design, supply, packaging, pricing, manufacturing, advertising, distribution, sales, training, promotion and research).
Employee/internal/organizational communications (a strategic and tactile focus on employee education and engagement, primarily through effective communication and distribution of pertinent information via a variety of channels and techniques; objectives are successfully met when the internal audience benefits, as well as the bottom-line performance and morale of the organization itself).
Customer service (assurance by dedicated employees that what is promised in the advertising and marketing materials and mix is, in fact, delivered, whether it be the quality of the product or service or the responsiveness to queries and complaints).
Website communications (the public, online communication tool that serves as a repository of information and available product and services resources related to an organization, often including interactive options).
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The above list is not all-encompassing so please fill in the gaps (I would particularly enjoy hearing from students on how these roles are being described in academia); however, these are the functions I often see lumped in with a generalized (hence diluted) term of “public relations.” Obviously I disagree, even though I spend a (fluctuating) percentage of work time in many of these areas. (In particular, public relations has an excellent relationship with our marketing department, serving as a partner and a resource, but all the while appreciating who has the main carriage of responsibility for this function.)
I do recognize that each of the detailed communication-management areas, done effectively, can have an immense impact and influence on the reputation and health of an organization (not to mention the bottom line), but I don’t think the majority of them qualify as a “public relations” function. In a nutshell, I want to (re)claim this PR position description and main organizational role from those whose main expertise is found and focused elsewhere.
Appealing to You for Assistance
I invite you to add to (or modify) the above categories or descriptions, challenge and debate relevance, agree with my assessment or convince me to reevaluate my erroneous thinking.
Down the road I’ll work on the “do-do’s.” Then (perhaps) at the 2008 retreat I’ll be able to detail easily and understandably to my LERN colleagues what those of us in public relations actually do, rather than what we don’t.