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Dispelling Stereotypes & Misinformation About Public Relations

While Rob Walker’s analysis, in last weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine, of the potential benefits from negative publicity following the Gap’s recent logo misstep was a good read on a timely topic, he makes the same mistake that lots of folks seem to do: equating the function of publicity with the concept of public relations.

I poll my “Introduction to Public Relations” class at the beginning of each term, and most of them think that the terms “publicity” and “public relations” are interchangeable — by the end of the course, they know better. Understanding the mix-up is easy — lots of sources get it all wrong and add to the confusion (Wikipedia is one of many), although some (Merriam-Webster Online, among others) present more accurate definitions.

The rightness or wrongness of the definition and the confusion between the function and the concept that it supports is important. However, as most well-versed public relations practitioners know, sound attention to the concept (public relations) would have likely prevented the Gap’s logo publicity (function) fiasco in the first place.

Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, chair and CEO of PRSA, addressed the topic in a letter he submitted this week on behalf of PRSA to the editor of The New York Times Magazine, where he said, in part: “Ultimately, the Gap’s reaction and quick steps taken in reverting back to its old, beloved logo was the right decision for the company, but not for the reasons Mr. Walker claims. Had the Gap employed a more earnest level of engaged public relations with its key audiences before attempting the re-launch, the company likely would not have had to endure the harsh criticism, public ridicule and long-term harm its brand has sustained.”

Real public relations experts know publicity is an output, not an outcome. What we’re ultimately after in public relations are changes in attitudes, opinions and behaviors. Whether positive or negative, lists of media placements, Facebook friends or website hits are process rather than summative measures.

This misunderstanding about what public relations is and what it does isn’t a new one. I remember Davis Young, APR, Fellow PRSA, at the time president of Edward Howard & Company (now a division of Fahlgren Mortine Public Relations) speaking to the Central Ohio PRSA chapter in Columbus more than 20 years ago. His topic then was the same as the topic that I’m writing about today — correcting misconceptions in the media about what public relations is really all about.

Young’s suggestion at the time was that no one was better equipped to clear up the confusion than public relations practitioners themselves, and he even outlined a method for doing it — the same one that Gary McCormick is using now — writing letters to the editor.

We have more media channels to use and more direct communications methods available to us now than ever before, and I think instead of complaining about what they say about public relations, we should help them understand the field.

In fact I’m going to sit down at my keyboard and start writing whenever I see an example of public relations confusion and misrepresentation.  If the society’s 21,000-plus professional members (and 10,000-plus student members) join me and do the same, we can make a difference in the way the public and business community understands, values and respects the public relations profession.

Stephen D. Iseman, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and a professor of communications arts and public relations at Ohio Northern University.

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