What does someone in public relations do? The question should get simple answers, but instead everything related to it is somehow nebulous. “It depends!” seems to be the preferred, so called “diplomatic” first response. But “it depends” is also the only choice when one has to define such a complex profession.
I will not address this article to the public relations professionals who know all about the four PR models.
My intention is to bring to your attention the PR models customary encountered online, and while my tone will be half serious, please take the following with a grain of salt. I am not trying to offend anybody, I am just attempting to give feedback, heads-up, and, of course, praise where praise due. The following statements and remarks represent my personal opinions, based on over 12 years experience in the public relations sector, 7 of which represent online public relations experience.
To answer the question “what does someone in public relations do?” we need to define the PR models, their roles online and their ethics.
Classic PR Models
Boundary spanner: – the role of the boundary spanner is to be a bridge of communications between the internal stakeholders of a company and its external stakeholder. White&Dozier describe the boundary spanners as “individuals within the organization who frequently interact with the organization’s environment and who gather, select and relay information from the environment to decision makers in the dominant coalition.” For online companies, these are “in house” practitioners, who often have to set ethics aside for the sake of persuasion.
These are too busy and too important people to answer to the comments of the public, so if you ever see them online, they would most likely have a blog with closed comments and whoever tries to approach them will never find a contact page.
Advocate: – the role of the advocate is to represent the interest of an organization in front of its publics. Advocacy is essentially persuasive, as the term implies, and persuasion could easily degenerate into propaganda, especially in the “hands” of the unskilled. You’ll see the advocates commenting on blogs that criticize their company/product only to make excuses and never to acknowledge the problem. Remember: their role is to paint an all positive image of a company. Everything else is secondary.
These people serve their enlightened self interests (good business sense), entitlement (if it’s legal, it’s ethical) and display a moderate social responsibility sense. They appear to be truthful (but watch out: they will withhold some truths), authentic (sometimes they will willingly identify themselves as persuaders), respectful and equitable. As long as you keep in mind that these people are trained to serve self-interests and that the public is not always open to such practitioners, choosing the “advocate PR model” for your business is a better idea than choosing the boundary spanner model.
Relationship manager: – this PR professional negotiates inside and outside organizations, focusing on building mutual beneficial relationships. The relationship manager bases his actions on all possible elements that can make up a positive relationship: trust, customer satisfaction, commitment to excellence, dialogue, etc. This online PR model will be present at Twitter, giving advice and playing trivial pursuit, and on many of blogs telling the authors how wonderful and right they are.
The reputation manager will also have a blog full of advices (pretty much like this one) and will be present on a few social media profiles, usually lurking around.
Propagandist: the most hated PR model, and sadly a very prevalent one, even online. There is no such a thing as free press: the propagandist knows it and he will manipulate it to serve governmental and business interests by all means. Usually the propagandist is a highly influential figure, who hides behind a mask of ethicality. The propagandist is usually in the top of best paid PR firms in a country, because the propagandist knows everyone and everyone fears him.
The propagandist will have a state of the art website, with CEOs and board of directories painted in glowing colors. The propagandist declares himself an expert at everything PR. There is nothing this individual cannot do, nothing at all. A very good example, cited by many other PR experts, is the Concern Over Cancer Group campaign back in 2006, orchestrated by Weber Shandwick, a company that describes itself as an “advocate” rather than a propagandist. This only shows how thin the borders can be.
These are the four classic PR models identified by many PR experts. But let me continue with a few other models.
New Online PR Models
The self declared PR maven: – hard to define unless you know what a maven is. According to Princeton this is “someone who is dazzlingly skilled in any field.” We had a clear maven example in one of our PR Goofy Awards. The self declared maven has usually a very aggressive approach – pretty much like a used-car salesman. The technique works offline, but online, where the readers are usually tired of hype and shameless self promotion, the mavens might end up singing a lonely (and loony) tune.
The look at me I am pretty model: – literally, this is someone so narcissistic that one of the “strengths” that appear on his/her site is a mention of a former Miss Something award.
The I don’t know what I am doing, but I am doing PR: – this is a disturbing presence online! Just browse any of the free press releases sites and see the amount of crap published there. That, my friends, is a PR model that should never be followed. It’s usually practiced by those who believe in DIY PR and DIY everything.
The look at me, I am a PR star model: oh, I could make a huge list! These people are too busy and too important for their younger colleagues. I tried to interview a few of the stars, they are always too busy to answer. However, when they need a vote on a social network (like digg, or StumbleUpon) or a retweet, they are always available. They are also available for business inquiries. I will not give you any names, you know who they are and if you don’t, just check out some PR profiles on twitter, see who has the most followers and try to get in touch with them.
Last but not least, the humble PR model: you’ll never believe it, but there are some of these too. Humble, in the best meaning of the term. These people take time to help, are kind and considerate, altruistic and noble.
So see, next time you want an answer to “what does someone in public relations do?” understand that “it depends” and that the answers are as nebulous as the PR models above.