PR Fuel Mailbag

It’s once again time to reach into the old PR Fuel mailbag and answer some of reader questions. This time around we look at global public relations, the key differences between PR and advertising, crisis management in the public relations industry, and dealing with clients in tricky situations.

QUESTION: What do you feel are the key global public relations trends?

ANSWER: Overseas, especially in so-called “developing nations,” it seems the media and public are finally beginning to understand public relations. Several years ago in South Africa, for instance, there was a scandal involving a newspaper editor and leading public relations practitioner. In the aftermath, the public came to understand that the media and public relations are separate entities. The stories and editorials I read were surprising because it seemed that people didn’t really understand the role of public relations. This is in the case all over the world, including America. So one of the biggest trends I’ve seen is an outreach by those in the public relations industry to educate the public about what they do.

In countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and India, there’s an increasing trend for public relations to take an active role in getting the truth out when it comes to business. In America, the role of public relations in a scandal is often simply as a corporate mouthpiece, getting out the company’s message as dictated by management. Overseas, more and more, I’ve been reading very strong opinion pieces from  public relations professionals stating that if PR departments are responsible for a company’s public image, they need to be honest. Historically, especially overseas, public relations departments were nothing more than walking advertisements.

And I’ve certainly seen a big shift towards electronic public relations. PR consultants are using technology more efficiently, sending out more and more pitches, press releases, and product information. And they’re using audio, video, graphics, blogs, and RSS feeds more effectively. In doing so, they’re making the information gathering process for the media–and the public–much easier.

QUESTION: What are the differences between publicity and advertising in terms of their impact on public?

ANSWER: Public relations is still just as important as advertising because consumers, voters, citizens,, etc. trust third-parties more than they trust big companies, politicians, and the government. The media gets knocked around a lot, but people still buy newspapers and magazines, watch television, listen to the radio, and read online publications. You’ll never hear Joe Public say, “hey, did you see that press release from Microsoft?” So public relations is getting the advertising message out using a third-party, which is the media, and that sometimes means those seeking publicity may not always like what they see in print.

Conversely, advertising is simply paying to get your message out to the public. It is, in one sense, the purest form of communication because it’s presenting information free of third-party input and free of charge. There’s still some confusion in the general public about the difference between public relations and advertising. As I noted in my answer to the first question, the global public relations industry is trying to change public perception. It’s going to be a long road, because people generally don’t care where or how they get their information, as long as they believe it’s from a viable source. And this, sadly, is a problem that the media, the public relations industry, and the advertising industry alike must address.

QUESTION: When do you need proactive public relations planning? And when do you utilize reactive crisis management?

ANSWER: A good company–or organization, government agency, etc.–always has a proactive public relations strategy. It’s really that simple. There are times when you don’t want to be in the limelight and you adjust accordingly by basically shutting up. But you should always be prepared to be on the offensive.

The same holds true for crisis management. You have to be prepared at all times. Think of it like a technical support line or 911. We’d obviously rather not have tech support people dealing with a lot of inquiries or emergency operators dealing with frantic phone calls, but they exist because the need may arrive. And the need for crisis management may arrive at any time for a company. You have to be ready because if you’re not, it’s going to cause a lot more problems than the original crisis. Preparation and coordination are two of the most important aspects of public relations.

QUESTION: How does a public relations consultant get a publicly-traded customer to speak to the media about using of your client’s product? What is the risk to the customer? (It seems like all the risk is taken by the vendor: a competitor will see the article and zero in on the person quoted.) Is it simply work-avoidance? If the customer cites company policy in refusing the opportunity, what can you say to the customer that will allow them to do the interview yet remain within corporate policy?

ANSWER: The best way to approach this is to first talk to the salespeople/point people who are dealing with the customer. Try to find out their general attitude toward your company/product. That way you can see if it will be worthwhile to pursue the customer’s public stamp of approval.

If you get positive feedback from the customer, I’d suggest you contact the highest level employee at your customer and explain that you’re preparing a public relations campaign that involves customer testimony; of course you want such a valuable customer to be involved. If that doesn’t work, try dealing directly with your customer’s public relations department. It’s free publicity for them. If you’re pitching your product-related story to publications, they could get some piggyback coverage by having their name mentioned as a customer, having someone quoted in a story, etc.

As for the corporate policy, well, if that’s defined, then you may just be out of luck. Again, I would take that up with the customer’s public relations department and see if you can work out a plan to get equal exposure. A lot of time these concerns are built into contracts. I worked for a dot-com/tech company and there was always something in any contract saying that both sides would agree to promote the other sides through reciprocal press releases, quotes, interviews, etc. It was never a sticking point.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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