The year was 2007 and I remember very well, the conversation I had with a maternal Aunt. She asked me what I was currently doing. I replied, “I am studying for a degree in Communications Studies with specialisation in Public Relations at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ).
She further inquired what job prospect that degree could offer me after my studies. Beaming with so much gusto and confidence, I replied, “It would put me in a better frame to represent companies, organisations or individuals”. With this response, she exclaimed rather humorously, “Herh Nana Egyir! So now you are going to join those who always tell lies on behalf of companies and politicians?”
That reply drew laughter out of me, because I knew there and then, that like I had done with others before her, this was another herculean task of trying to clarify the ‘issues’ regarding my chosen profession to another ‘unbeliever’. I hastened to assure her that I was going to undertake the practice during my working life in a rather professional and ethical manner and won’t fail her. She was not convinced after all the ‘long talk’ but I knew she was not the only one yet to understand the true nature of PR.
The truth is that my Aunt and others like you (Hahahahaha! Yes…I know you do) are part of a large group of people in Ghana or elsewhere, who hold or have held a negative opinion of the public relations profession. These misconceptions about the profession have thrived over the years and become so prominent over the years that they have become myths or are even in some circles taken as fact.
It is rather ironic because one purpose of PR is to create understanding, get good press along the line, while avoiding bad press, but it seems the profession itself has had some pretty bad perceptions about it over the years.
This situation in part is as a result of the fact that PR professional and organisations who should know better have dabbled in cover up, misdeeds and chicanery. On the other hand, it can also be inferred that some section of people are yet to fully understand the profession.
So today, I want to dedicate time, space, and a few words, to highlight a few of the misconceptions about the public relations practice in Ghana. Enjoy!
PR, Marketing and Advertising are one and the same
Visit some companies and you will find out that they have a Marketing or Sales person playing a public relations role. I find nothing wrong with that but in such cases, you find out that PR is often place on the back burner; as the lure for sales and instant return on investment (ROI) becomes the focus.
The fact is that though these three professional areas are often placed in the same basket, public relations, marketing and advertising are in absolutely different sections. The difference isn’t only in the way they are spelt. They are totally different areas of study and practice.
I remember my PR lecturer giving us a basic understanding as thus – Advertising and Marketing being a one-way street, with the advertiser or marketer on one end of the street and the customer on the other. But public relations is more of a two-way street (often three), with many interactions between the actors involved.
Notwithstanding their difference, recent events has shown that these areas frequently play complimentary roles despite the competition to stay relevant at the table of the dominant coalition. E.g.: Promotion (a component of the marketing mix) is a combination of communication activities which include advertising and public relations.
PR is all about spin, lying, manipulation and propaganda
People have the belief that PR is all about trickery and deception. Well, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. But that assertion is blatant lies. For a profession that at times stands in the gap for the indefensible like Lawyers often do; and while doing so creates some understanding, there is always bound to be a lot of negative attitude towards it.
Having said that, I cannot also overlook the fact this is also as a result of the fact that in Ghana, the trend has often been to see PR as the profession which cleans up the ‘mess’. So the proclivity for individuals, a government or a company is to engage ‘people who can talk’ and at times lie or paper the cracks when it matters.
These situations have not helped the cause of the profession but it is noteworthy to say that today’s audience has never been more sophisticated, and there have never been more alternative sources for news and information than we have now. To this end, throwing dust in the eyes of people becomes an arduous task.
The public relations profession is built around telling the truth and building trust. If the public’s trust is lost, PR loses all footing. That is a fact and successful communicators will intimate that “spinning” news doesn’t achieve PR’s goals.
PR is all about Press Releases and Press Conference
Ask anyone what a PR person does and probably the popular feedback you will gather is, “they are the ‘guys’ who write press release and organise press conference”. These two are what clients and even some bosses often associate with PR.
In spite of this notion, thank God (or let me hasten to add that thank advancement and technology) that age of the PR is no longer what defines the profession. The days when PR professionals were referred to as ‘Glorified Messengers’ is H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. In its place, communicating through content marketing, visuals, videos and social media has become the new forms of PR.
While writing press releases is certainly still PR’s responsibility, PR specialists are now leveraging multimedia assets, writing content, planning and implementing events, and oftentimes tracking/measuring results.
In recent times, public relations in Ghana and like other parts of the world is a professional area experience undergoing a massive revolution, with more communication happening in cutting-edge ways. Ever heard of YouTube videos, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, SEO, RSS?
PR can keep bad news out of the press
Try engaging any journalist or ordinary man on the street on their notion of the PR professional and they will not mince words. The reply often will be, “They sit on information”. “They try to protect their organisation, even when they know they are culpable in wrong doing”. Thus, for many out there, their view of the profession is one which rather builds BUFFERS rather than BRIDGES. That is a blatant lie.
The fact is that nothing stops bad news from spreading. At most, what PR professional can do is to manage it for a while and then it ‘BLOWS UP’. As most experts will tell you, more than two-thirds of company crises gain international reach within just 24 hours. With the emergence of digital technologies and social media, it actually takes micro-seconds to be in the public sphere.
What PR professionals who practice ethically over the years have done, is to help mitigate the effects of a crisis and look out for warning signs before it occurs and inform/advise management on the way forward.
PR is getting Publicity at all cost
Often I hear people mention or discuss PUBLICITY and PR in the same breath. That’s where many get it wrong especially in our part of the world. There are times people think they are doing PR when rather what they are busily doing is publicity.
The two are different terms. PUBLICITY is what gurus in PR will call the art of getting ink or media coverage (that is getting unpaid media to pay attention, write you up, point to you, run a picture, make a commotion about you). In doing so, one could employ fair or foul means to achieve that.
I once watched a movie ‘Beyond the lights’ where an up and coming artist by name Noni faked an event just to get some amount of press. A press briefing was hurriedly organised a day after. She informed the press about the fact that she had so much to drink the night before (a complete lie), tripped over her balcony but the timely intervention of her body guard saved her. She was successful and got some press coverage in the end but events later on affected her brand.
Does this instance remind you of some of our local artistes and ‘celebrities’, who do anything just to get some amount of press?
Public Relations (PR) on the other hand is the strategic management function that helps an organization or individuals communicate, establish and maintain communication with the public.
It goes beyond communicating and publicity to embrace concepts like relationship (where trust and credibility is key). It is the strategic crafting and dissemination of your story and focuses on the examination of one’s interactions; which includes what you say, what you do and how people talk about you.
Thus in such instance, it is not about doing anything to get the publicity but ensuring that what is done and said builds on a certain reputation capital. As Seth Godin notes, “a few people have a publicity problem, but almost everyone has a PR problem. You need to solve that one first”.
Public Relations can’t be measured
The truth is that most businesses will prefer Marketing and Advertising to PR. They are the areas that bring the money. This is true but the fact also is that event though PR doesn’t bring immediate sales, it builds pathways to sales and ROI.
For sales to be achieved, PR must often play a crucial role of making target market familiar with products and services and the brand. PR helps to craft stories in a way that will help stand out from competitors and be heard through the cacophony of media noise.
In doing so, it establishes the reputation and credibility of the brand at the point of purchase decision. As a business owner, you can try “selling” your goods and services to a target audience with a bad reputation/credibility and find out the outcome.
If you still think PR cant be measured, may i humbly refer you to Ilya Pozin‘s article in the Forbes magazine titled 5 Measurements for PR ROI. It is a good piece and will help disabuse any notion that PR cant be meansured and as such worthless.
Ex-journalists end up being better PR professionals
In Ghana, some school of thought believe that that only ex-journalists are the best for for the PR job, because they tend to speak and write better. No wonder some businesses owners and individuals will always opt for a journalist to fill a PR role. Thus, some have come to believe that PR is the ‘retirement home’, where journalists check in after some years of active service in the newsroom.
However, recent trends in the industry has shown not only ex journalist can do PR. The profession is growing, as the demand for information grows. Organizations of all types are also seeing the benefit of communicating with the press and public, and they are doing it in more ways than ever through web sites, blogs, Twitter, radio, Facebook, print, e-mail, YouTube videos and television.
PR is only needed by BIG companies
For most small and medium companies, the idea of PR is an afterthought. Propose the idea of a PR department or having an agency that looks at its PR issues and the response you get is that “PR is only for big companies”.
So, it is often a last resort in the event of possibly a crisis or issue but the internet age has reveled, PR can be a very essential tactic for small businesses, who want to boost awareness about their company and aids in managing the brand’s reputation.
What misconceptions do you know? What are your thoughts on the Public relations practice in Ghana? Join me in my corner by dropping a comment and let us have a conversation.