Public relations is about perception management. You might run a great company, your product or service might genuinely provide great benefits. But if the customer does not perceive it that way it remains on the shelves.
Consequently, high up among other tasks, executives must become perception managers. To do this executives must integrate public relations into the company's total communications mix.
Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, one of the world's largest communications companies, says: "Today's sophisticated client demands that every possible form of communications works together to achieve key corporate objectives."
Sorrell's pronouncement underscores how times have changed. Previously, advertising departments or ad agencies saw public relations departments as threats to their egos. Now executives must put a premium on getting all sides to work together.
Like them or hate them, the media are here to stay. Once the chairman of a British company, upset by what he considered to be an unfair piece of reporting in The Financial Times, said to me: "I'm not going to deal with the FT any more." I explained to him - tactfully of course - that he didn't have that option. One of the things he was being paid to do was deal with The Financial Times.
In coping with the media there are two key rules. Know the media and the reporters covering your company. Decide who within your company should keep in touch with them. Ordinarily this will include a number of people. Not everyone in your company is going to be equally skilled at media relations, so pick those with the knack. Those with the knack can vary according to the medium - print, TV or internet.
The company contact dealing with the media may or may not be the chief executive. Often companies will not want to make their chief executives available for interviews. But sometimes they will. In the media age the chief executive's image is crucial to the success of the company he or she leads.
In a study of the reputations of chief executives by the international PR firm Burson-Marsteller, 94pc of analysts polled said they would recommend a company's stock based on the chief executive's reputation.
If a company's public relations campaign is to work, senior management must first understand the perceptions of key audiences.
If the perception is favorable a company will want to enhance it. If it is unfavorable the company will want to change it. If there is no perception, as with a new product, the company will want to create it. All this underlines the need for research before marketing or promoting the company and its products and services.
It also underlines the need to get out ahead of the curve. Too often public relations experts are called in late - when there's a problem. A crisis has blown up. Share prices are plummeting. Employees are leaving. New competitors are stealing business.
The key is to run an active public relations programme with regularity. This involves deciding which of a company's audiences need the greatest attention. It involves figuring out how to reach them.
Dealing with the public also requires ever more sophisticated crisis management. The characteristics of a PR crisis are fairly constant. They include surprise, events spiraling out of control, intense scrutiny from the outside, a siege mentality internally and the risk of a short-term focus to the point of panic.
Companies caught in a PR crisis need to control the flow of information coming into and going out from the executive suite. This is most straightforwardly done by centralization - limiting to one or two people the flow of information going out, and to a small number the processing of information, including requests from the media, coming in.
Companies caught in a crisis - from the unplanned departure of a key executive to charges of fraud - need to set up a PR crisis team, then isolate the team from daily business concerns.
Companies caught in a crisis with a PR dimension should resist the combative instinct. The better option might be to accept the need to admit error. First, though, companies being bombarded with bad publicity need to be 100pc certain of any facts circulated. To give inaccurate information to hostile reporters is to add fuel to the fire.
Companies beset by PR crises must also remember all their constituencies - internal as well as external. This brings up a final point. Companies increasingly need the media to communicate to their own employees.
Company loyalty is dead. Virtually no company any longer promises lifetime employment. Anyone can be fired. Since employees know that, the good ones are nearly always considering other options. So why do employees stay with a company if it is not out of loyalty? They stay because they believe in the vision of the company. Using the media, as well as internal lines, management can communicate its vision to staff.
-Excerpt Telegraph (UK)