Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Honesty is the Best Policy

When people think about public relations, they often think of a ‘PR Stunt,’ or some kind of advertisement or campaign meant to draw attention, often on the verge of scamming the audience. People commonly don’t trust public relations because it seems to promise with no delivery. Today, public relations has built its own brand where honesty in information and relationships is the most vital way to not only increase loyalty of consumers, but to break down the walls of distrust with public relations itself. Over the course of history, public relations has developed from a ridiculous notion to the key to brand success and consumer retention.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Public Relations started because it came about when people began to persuade for an organization or cause—where people began to reach out to the public. So, really, where it can be traced back to is the Athenian rhetoricians with their public speeches and writing to persuade the people of their ideas. Even Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses can be counted as early public relations. (Lattimore et. al., 2009)
It wasn’t until about 300 years later that modern public relations began to emerge through P.T. Barnum’s tactics to get publicity for his circus—publicity solely for persuasion that ignored the truth because it wasn’t interesting enough. It was his dishonest, outrageous advertisements and displays that gave public relations a reputation of deception for the sake of making money that carries on today.

Cover and page from Barnum Courier, 1883. 2010. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 2015 Dec. 9. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

In the 1900’s, George Michaelis established the Publicity Bureau where he essentially set the ground work for the focus on fact over fiction with press releases by gathering information to publish in newspapers in order to inform the public of current happenings.Through distributing information, it was obviously more effective to communicate truth to the public that would keep consumers’ trust and loyalty. Around the same time, Ivy Lee defined public relations as a “management function” (Lattimore et. al., 2009)—making public relations a more reputable medium for companies or public figures to create a certain image and get their initiatives known to the public.  

After this, public relations even moved into the political realm as President Theodore Roosevelt communicated to the United States through press conferences and interviews. (Lattimore et. al., 2009) Once again this emphasized persuasion through being honest with the public.

Several years later, exaggeration creeped back in with perhaps the most memorable propaganda-filled public relations campaigns put on by the government during World War One and Two. (Lattimore et. al., 2009) Although these campaigns rallied loyalty and support for the war and the country, the propaganda brought about negative perceptions of certain countries and cultures.

As time went on, though, effective public relations was adapted into businesses by Edward Bernays with promotional events, Arthur Page of AT&T and his emphasis on connecting with customers, and Moss Kendrix and his advertising campaigns. (Lattimore et. al., 2009) Soon, departments and firms were established and public relations became more of a professional affair in building a trustworthy image rather than just initiatives to get attention.

According to Wren Ludlow, a current public relations professional who attended BYU, the biggest changes in public relations that will affect the careers of my peers and I are its convergence with marketing, journalism and advertising. New developments in our era such as social media and other technology have brought data and content for engaging and strategic public relations efforts. All of these aspects contribute to more efficient financial management and decision making. Organizations’ transparency about this information is what fosters trusting, “mutually beneficial relationships with key publics.”  

Howle, Jason. Social Media Apps. 2013. Flickr. Web. 2015 Dec. 9. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Communication and Loyalty
Over the course of this progression, public relations has changed from being 100% about persuasion for business and has brought its focus into being open and transparent with its audiences. This is an essential part of the effectiveness of businesses today.

The purpose of public relations, as BYU professors have said in classes is to ‘build mutually beneficial relationships.’ Public relations professionals’ number one priority is to know exactly what is needed to build that mutually beneficial relationship with a public, individual, company, department, ect. in using effective communication and persuasion tailored to that specific audience.

The purpose of public relations firms and departments is also primarily to build up the image, or brand, of an organization. In other words, the focus of my career is to use strategic planning to increase the credibility of whoever/whatever I represent through relationships, campaigns and other tactics to gain loyalty and trust.

In order to do this, I have to be aware of current trends in society in order to make my communication kairotic enough for people to pay attention. Emotional and logical appeal are then used deliberately to craft messages with distinct rhetorical techniques designed for each specific public. 

Throughout all of these communication techniques, the real loyalty comes from the transparency and vulnerability that an organization offers. To tie this all together, I’ll use an example. When Tylenol's reputation was as stake, Johnson & Johnson saved their image (which is why Tylenol is still a household name) while creating a historic case study:

In the Fall of 1982, cyanide was found in several bottles of Tylenol in the mid-west. Several people were fatally poisoned and a nationwide scare quickly arose due to extensive media coverage. Johnson&Johnson lost the trust of millions of customers as people suspected that they created dangerous products or may have been careless in the production process.

Tylenol rapid release pills. Wikipedia. Web. 2015 Dec. 9. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

In order to fix this, Johnson&Johnson kept the public informed through news and other media about what they were doing to find the source of the tragedy. They also recalled their products, warning consumers not to partake of the medication in case it might be dangerous. This strategy maintained consumer trust and is the reason why we still see Tylenol on store shelves today. (Markel, 2014)

This case study not only shows the value in transparency, but how to utilize that transparency to be most effective. If Johnson&Johnson had not been honest with their audience, they would have lost the valuable relationship with consumers that kept them in business. By being transparent, they were able to portray to consumers that their first priority was the consumer’s health and lives rather than trying to salvage what money they could from what was lost after recalling so many bottles of Tylenol.

This may seem counter-productive to the business as a huge aspect of why businesses exist is to make money, but it actually works for both sides. When a company is honest and willing to have open communication, the customer feels cared about and connected to that company. In turn, companies are able to retain a loyal audience and continue to keep their business growing and being successful.

Overall, we have come a long way from the days of P.T. Barnum’s tall tales meant to use deception as the main tactic for drawing in attention and ultimately revenue. Today, public relations professionals are kept honest not only through the success of their company, but by the Public Relations Society of America and its authority, network and code of ethics. To be transparent in public relations is almost not a choice, as the consequence of being discovered for dishonest PR Stunts is the loss of reputation, consumer loyalty and business as a whole. Looking at the whole picture, public relations builds loyalty with honesty in businesses in order to create its own image of honesty to earn the loyalty and trust of the public.

Works Cited
Lattimore, Dan, Otis Baskin, Suzzette T. Heiman, and Elizabeth L. Toth. "The History of Public Relations." Public Relations: the Profession and the Practice. 3rd ed. N.p.: Mcgraw-Hill Education, 2009. 25-43. PDF.

Markel, Howard. "How the Tylenol Murders of 1982 Changed the Way We Consume Medication." PBS. NewsHour Productions LLC., 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

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