PR through to 2000: more strategy, less instinct

The following article is based in part on a speech delivered recently by Christopher Bunting to the annual convention in Montreal of the u.s.-based Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications.Not long ago, some public relations practitioners were characterized by...

The following article is based in part on a speech delivered recently by Christopher Bunting to the annual convention in Montreal of the u.s.-based Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications.

Not long ago, some public relations practitioners were characterized by their ability to work a room, shake the right hands and slap the right backs while still managing to balance a martini.

But in a rapidly shrinking, technology-driven world, public relations has transformed and continues to evolve to keep pace with the dramatic changes in business.

Approaching 2000, this 85-year-old industry is now marked by sophisticated research and strategic marketing techniques, and the consequences of what we do for employers and clients are critical.

Front seat

In the 1990s, communicators confront an environment in which signals bouncing off satellites give Canadians a front seat to war, and newspaper reports in one country can ruin a company’s best-laid plans in another.

Every issue the pr person deals with today – local, regional or national – has some kind of international ramification.

Recent headlines provide vivid examples. Without the media, I might never have known Quebec is home to one of North America’s largest suit manufacturers, and one of the world’s largest producers of mint-coated toothpicks.

Although each is a one-factory operation, their public relations objectives now include influencing decision-makers across the continent on the free trade issue.

Get message across

To that end, they have used national media to get their messages to legislators and the public.

Public relations is no longer merely an add-on when all other business decisions are made. It is now an essential part of the marketing and management mix.

As pr issues become international, they are also more complex. Consider the growth of interest groups and multiculturalism. Both trends result in a tailoring of objectives and demand for a sophisticated, broad-based communications approach.

Given the political, moral and cultural considerations now inherent in major markets across Canada, publicists do not assume they are speaking to a homogeneous audience. Forming a unique message and separating it from the crowd has become a science.

The increasing complexity of public relations has resulted in top management understanding the need for effective communication, and it now readily invites its public relations team to participate in the organization’s central decision-making process. At least, this is the case with industry leaders.

Our industry has, by necessity, evolved from an instinctively run, contact-driven publicity business to a more complex, strategy-oriented business.

While practitioners will continue to do the traditional media tours and product promotions, their approaches are multi-dimensional and target a diversity of audiences.

In terms of media alone, news and information programming has substantially increased in recent years, and promises to continue growing as consumers demand more information.

The u.s. network nbc is signalling a shift by axing its Saturday morning cartoons in favor of a weekend version of the Today show. And starting next month, cbc’s The National and The Journal will be starting at 9 p.m. – probably a suicidal move just a few years ago.

Specialty publications

But the increase in information is not restricted to electronic media. The changing use of our leisure time has given rise to specialty publications for every activity or pastime, from cottaging to trading cards. They are all potential audiences for the modern communicator.

Faced with such constant change in the modern marketplace, the public relations industry uses numerous tools to increase its role and its value within the management function, including extensive research.

Before initiating a campaign, practitioners prepare an analysis of the population they are targetting to determine prevailing opinions and trends.

The increasing volume of comprehensive population surveys, such as Angus Reid’s recently published ‘Canada and the World’ poll, is evidence of the demand for a better understanding of how we think and why.

More and more, communicators are using this information to determine and justify their public relations strategies. Measurable results are expected – mere image or perception are not enough.

Industry changed

The industry has changed and so, too, have its practitioners. Public relations agencies and corporate communicators are now asked to help guide organizations through environmental issues, legal dilemmas, mergers, crises, and international negotiations.

As a result, the industry is attracting highly educated professionals with backgrounds in everything from law to environmental relations, crisis management and healthcare communications. This specialization will only grow in the years to come.

Critical issues

Throughout the next decade, standards and ethics will become the critical issues for this industry. As communicators ply their skills alongside lawyers, chartered accountants and research analysts, the consequences of our work will continue to become more significant.

After all, everything from aids education to environmental awareness have become massive pr exercises – and the consequences of these exercises are serious.

Our industry remains self-regulated, with no real educational or practicing standards, and the codes of ethics and conduct put forward by our industry associations still have no teeth or clout. That, too, will likely change as we mature into the third millennium.

The era of common sense public relations has not died, but the handshake, the smile and the quick fix are no longer the foundations of an industry that has come of age.

Christopher Bunting is chairman of Continental PIR Communications.