Public Relations is More Than
Just Press Releases
by Chad Rueffert

Last month, I purchased a new copy of an old standard in the public relations field:  Lesly's Handbook of Public Relations and Communications. This 826-page book covers nearly every conceivable aspect of communicating with the numerous publics who hold a stake in your business or industry.  I've read it before, cover-to-cover, and I read it again last week.  If you're concerned about the current and future image and success of your business, I'd suggest you read it, too.


One main point to take away from this ponderous tome is that public relations is about more than just press releases.  For at least a decade now, enterprising authors have been writing pop culture business books about how to create positive publicity for your company through press releases and news conferences.  While these are valuable publicity tools, if we focus exclusively on them we run the risk of dumbing down public relations to the point that many businesses will forget how to adequately communicate with their stakeholders.


A stakeholder is any person, group or industry that is affected, positively or negatively, by the operation of your business.  There are more of them than you think, and in one way or another, each can play a large role in the success or failure of your company.  Your stakeholders include customers, past customers, prospective customers, vendors, employees, shareholders, employee's families, the media, local and federal government, industry associations, minority groups, opinion leaders, labor unions, community associations, activists, competitors, neighbors and a variety of other groups that pay more attention to your business than you realize.  And the bigger you get, the more attention you'll receive.


Each of these stakeholders has or will form an opinion about your company, and if you are not actively working to influence those opinions, you'll be surprised how many of them are negative.  Do your employees know why you laid off 25 people last week or do they get their information through the company grapevine?  Do your vendors know that you've just changed accounting systems or are they working up the courage to call about that 30-day past due invoice?  Do your local government officials know how much money you invested last year to meet environmental standards or are they only hearing from the neighborhood next door who complains about the smoke?  In the handbook, Philip Lesly says, "Word of mouth can spread like a prairie fire.  If the subject and content are right, it can burst into spontaneous combustion as an entire forest may suddenly be overrun by a conflagration.  Through word of mouth, rumor and innuendo may spread with extreme speed and spontaneity if the subject is close to the emotions of people."


Every thing that happens in your company has a reason behind it.  If you don't educate your stakeholders about those reasons, they'll fill the void with speculations of their own.  Speculation becomes rumor and rumor becomes the perception of reality very quickly.  The only way to combat this issue is to constantly, consistently and positively communicate with all of your stakeholders.  You've got to answer their questions before they become concerns, and address their concerns before they become problems.  Do this, and you'll find that you have fewer problems to solve.


That leads back to my main point:  public relations is about more than press releases.  Press releases are one way to disseminate information.  If a positive story runs in your local newspaper, you can reach tens of thousands of stakeholders with your message.  But what if the story isn't run?  And what about all those important little things that need to be communicated to individual stakeholders but are of no interest to the media?


To effectively communicate with your various stakeholders, you'll need a variety of tools beyond the press release. You'll want to consider having an up-to-date website where you can quickly address issues of immediate concern.  You should consider a company newsletter that is distributed to all of your stakeholders, from employees to investors.  Employee bulletins are an effective way to quickly inform your workers about new hires and internal policy changes, and can be done by a simple daily email or printed page.  Traditional media advertising can be used for important messages that might not get picked up by the journalistic media.  Direct mail or open houses can be used to communicate with your neighborhood or community.  Receptions and site tours can be held for your local public officials.  Donations can be made to local charities to show your community involvement.  If you want to communicate effectively with your publics, you'll first have to determine the best vehicle to reach them.


But it's worth the effort to identify your stakeholders and communicate with them.  Imagine what will happen when every time you have a success, each and every one of your stakeholders hears about it immediately.  Everyone involved in your organization will have a sense of pride in his or her association with your success.  They'll talk about you to everyone they know in glowing and positive terms and will defend you against attacks.


And on the opposite side, think how much your stakeholders will appreciate being informed of change prior to it happening, how involved they'll feel when you explain reasoning behind decisions, discuss openly any negative issues and keep them in the loop about the present and future of your company.  You'll be able to squash rumor and innuendo before they burn a hole through your image.


I urge every company to foster positive and ongoing relationships with the media.  But the media is just one way to reach your stakeholders, and only occasionally the preferred way.  If you want a true relationship with the public, communicate with them in every way you can.