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Communications and Public Relations

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We are in an age of information proliferation. At no other time has the importance of public relations (PR) and communications been more obvious. Now, with more information and more available means of dissemination, an organization must take care to develop and project its desired image, both in-house and to the public. The public relations, press, and publicity staffs either working within a corporation or serving it as an outside agency, are responsible for disseminating information, building the company image, handling controversy and conflict, and acting as spokespeople for the organization.

As advertising becomes increasingly more expensive, many organizations want to take advantage of available free press coverage. Because competition among companies in various fields for this free press is intense, the art of having an article about an organization, company, project, cultural event, or charity printed at the right time at no cost has become very important.

Various types of organizations, companies, and individuals use the services of a public relations staff: banks, consumer organizations, public utilities, theaters, record companies, hospitals, colleges, labor unions, and artists, to name a few. The location of the PR staff varies: Sometimes it is part of the marketing and advertising departments; sometimes it forms an independent department. In some companies, all the public relations functions are carried out by one person; in others, a separate person carries out each function. Alternatively, an organization can hire an external public relations firm to develop and implement a specific assignment or entire PR program.

The titles of communications specialists include publicist, press agent, director of communications, account executive, director of press and public relations, promotion manager, director of investor relations, director of media relations, and director of community affairs. A PR professional working within a company acts as a liaison between its different parts and between the public. A PR professional working at a public relations firm or on a freelance basis may handle a single client or a number of separate clients and specialize in specific industries or areas of activity.

The Public Relations Firm: Services Offered

Public relations firms, like advertising agencies, handle accounts from different companies. The account executive in a public relations firm serves as the client's contact with the firm. He or she often handles more than one client-whether it be a company, product, or person and is generally responsible for performing several PR functions personally. The public relations firm may serve its clients by carrying out research to ascertain existing public attitudes and anticipate potential problems. It then tries to create and mold the organization's image through the dissemination of information in press releases, newspaper articles, press conferences, speeches, and other channels.

Large public relations firms may have specialized departments to handle specific tasks or types of clients. Fields for which a firm might have specialists on staff include fundraising, public utilities, women's organizations, financial public relations, travel. An account executive from an appropriate department would work with a specific company; sometimes several account executives from different departments will work together when a problem requires it.


The account executive, commonly referred to as publicist, is at the center of activity in the public relations industry. He or she may work on a corporate staff, for a public relations firm, or on a freelance basis. The freelance public-relations specialist may work as consultant to an organization or person for a contracted period of time, or may help on a special project. We shall concentrate here on specialists who work either for an organization or a public relations firm. It should be borne in mind that many of the tools, skills, and activities we discuss are common to all who work in the public relations and communications field.

The development of a publicity campaign begins with a meeting to decide the campaign goals. For example, if a rock group is releasing its first album, the meeting might examine: What image does the group want? What people does the group want to listen to its music? If a company has developed a product that is poorly manufactured-like the 1972 Pinto, famous for its exploding gas tank-the job of the publicist is to determine how to keep this information from reflecting negatively on the rest of the company's products. These are examples of day-to-day publicity challenges. Some are image building; some fall within the realm of marketing; some involve crisis management.

After diagnosis of the situation, a campaign or problem-solving strategy is formulated. Research may be needed to find out how the public is really responding to a situation. The policy regarding how to respond to a challenge is developed jointly by the publicist and client. The policy recommendation involves deciding what facts to give the public and in what way. In these activities the publicist must use good judgment.

Implementing the agreed-upon policy is next. These questions must be addressed: What tools should be used to bring the information to the public? Who exactly is the public? What media should be used? Should an appeal be made directly to the consumer in a direct-mail campaign? Will paid advertising be effective? Will someone have to make a speech? Sometimes consultation with the client's legal department, sales division, or other departments is essential in formulating and implementing a campaign. Outside organizations and resources may also be used. The publicist will use various combinations of public relations tools in the campaign's implementation. Here are the most important tools used in the industry:

Press Release: The press release is a short (usually one-page) summary of a news event, written factually, with as little bias as possible. Usually a date is involved, as in "Stanley Thompson was appointed president of Worldwide Computers, 15 August 1984."

The publicist determines who receives a copy of the press release. If possible, he or she will tap the resource of personal relationships in sending out the release. For instance, if a publicist knows the editor of a certain newspaper, the release may have a greater chance of being printed. Having a general knowledge of the industry and the media interested in the industry, knowing which reporters and editors cover what types of story from what angles is imperative. Often someone who has worked for a trade paper before moving into press relations will benefit from his or her knowledge of relationships in the press and industry.

Ghostwritten Article: More extensive than the press release is a full article actually written by the publicist and given to the press. Often, if the editor is a friend or the piece is exceptionally well written, the magazine or newspaper may print it with few changes under the name of one of their own writers. As a publicist, you do not get "byline" credit for what you write. Recognition comes from the company for whom you work, not from the publications that pick up your stories.

Cover Letter: Letter writing is a frequent activity of the publicist. Each press release encloses a personal letter to the addressed editor, writer, or station manager that gives background information, explains why the story is important, and lists the name and phone number of a contact for further information. Letters are also written directly to consumers, investors in a company, and city officials. These letters serve the public relations function in that they distribute information selected by the client to the public.

Telephone: Important press releases are followed by a phone call to the writers or editors to whom they were sent. Again, interpersonal skills and strong relationships with members of the media are essential here. The phone call reinforces the press release by bringing it to the editor's attention. Sometimes further information is offered or an interview arranged. The phone is sometimes used to make initial contact and get preliminary information, as in finding out who at a newspaper deals with the issue being addressed. These writing and phoning tasks require follow-up work. People can lose press releases on their desks, not be in when called, or be busy and thinking of something else. Timing is essential; therefore second mailings and repeat phone calls are part of a publicist's daily schedule.

Press Kit: The press kit is a folder of materials, including the press release, which gives extensive background information on the subject. The publicist includes biographies ("bios") or fact sheets (three to four pages of interesting and "newsy" information on the subject), as well as clippings of past articles and photographs that the press can use. If the press kit accompanies the release of a new book or record album, a copy may also be included. Press kits typically are distributed to reviewers and interviewers, often before a press conference, to give them background information.

Press Conference: The press conference is arranged when a person or event is extremely newsworthy. It usually consists of the client or publicist making a short speech and answering questions on the issue. Arranging the date and place of a press conference requires careful planning. Press kits are compiled for reporters, who are contacted by phone and letter after a release has been distributed. A speech is written for the person holding the conference by the publicist or special speechwriting staff; rarely is it written by the speaker. A copy of the speech is also distributed, once prior to the press conference and again when it is included in the press kit. On the day of the conference, the publicist confirms all arrangements by phone, including attendance by the media. He or she greets the press at the conference, distributes information, and is available for questions.

Interview: The publicist also initiates interviews between the client and reporters. Unlike the press conference, an interview is usually held with only one or two reporters at a time. Arrangements are usually made by phone, and at this point the reporter discusses potential interview questions with the publicist. When the publicist receives a call from a reporter wishing to speak with the client about an issue, he or she makes the necessary arrangements and briefs the client about the topic at hand.

Interviews are not always single-ly scheduled events. A publicist may plan and schedule a large set of interviews as part of a regional or national tour.

Follow-up: After a campaign has been implemented, the effects are reviewed to determine if it achieved its objectives. Sometimes research is done to determine overall campaign policy effectiveness. An example of a research question is, "What percentage of consumers still feel the new phone company rates are unfair, compared to before the press campaign?" The publicist also reviews newspapers, magazines, and journals daily, and clips out articles about the subject of the press campaign. Copies of articles are sent to the client. The publicist maintains files of these clippings for future reference. Monitoring a press campaign lets publicist and client determine which methods were successful, which need change, and what aspects need emphasis in handling a crisis or building an image.
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