Top 5 ways to put the public back in public relations

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By Brian Leadbetter

You might think it’s self-evident that public relations is all about relating to the public. Unfortunately, that’s become a bit of a wayward premise, but one that can, and should, be course-corrected. And, there are some very public recent examples where organizations – both big and small, both government and private sector – have failed in the basic task of relating to, and engaging with, their publics. This shouldn’t be. There are some very basic and very simple principles and tools that can up your relating to the public (aka public relations) game. Let me share some of the most important points here.

1. Be available and accessible

Have you ever tried to find the name of a public contact person on a company or government website? Only to find yourself 20 layers into the company web navigation no further ahead in finding an actual person, but being told to fill out an anonymous contact form, and we value your feedback. You’re not alone. Any organization (private companies, publicly traded companies, or governments) whose business or function relies on engaging with the public must, at a minimum, have appropriate points of contact listed for public and community inquiries.

This is a very low bar, and doesn’t meet the very minimum of best practices for public engagement. But, you’d be surprised (or you possibly won’t be surprised) just how many organizations fail in meeting this basic standard. Of the multiple boxes to check in upping your public engagement game, this is but the very first.

2. Prioritize meaningful connections and relationships

Beyond the very basic task of being available to your publics, prioritizing meaningful connections and building relationships with key stakeholders is both rewarding personally and valuable professionally. Not enough organizations prioritize establishing meaningful connections with their public stakeholders. It is cultivating these relationships (particularly in the good times) that will elevate your organization’s social capital and allow you to weather public storms (in the bad times).

A number of the organizations where I led their community engagement activities had large footprints adjoining residential communities. I would always invest the time to meet with community members to hear their concerns and aspirations for their neighbourhood/community. In fact, community door-knocking is one of my favourite things as a public relations and engagement professional. This ties back to my first point of being available and accessible, but also shows that you (as an organization) care about your publics. This goes a long way.

3. Find, and align, common goals and interests

It is really easy to vilify large organizations or companies who fail to connect their goals or objectives with their publics or communities. It is less easy to vilify organizations who take meaningful steps, and demonstrable action, in showing how their goals and interests align with those of their communities (public). But, my advice here is to keep it simple.

Many organizations will find a way to overly-complicate aligning their goals with community goals under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility (CSR). In a dizzying matrix of corporate goals and objectives, SWOT analyses and value propositions, they will lose sight of the fact that aligning common goals is really about creating meaningful connections.

Start small by finding community events, charities, or not-for-profits to support in your local communities. Encourage staff to volunteer their time with organizations making meaningful contributions in the community. And, if you’re not corporately able to give the gift of time, and have financial capacity, then give that gift to a community group that aligns with your sector or area of interest.

Even if you corporately define one or two community engagement objectives or activities in the course of a year, that can snowball and have a meaningful impact over the long-term.

4. Be proactive

I suppose I could have started with this one. My primary point here is that you’ll achieve a great deal more if you have a proactive plan to engage your publics (community) than if you are in reactive mode, always putting out fires.

Again, you might say this is self-evident, and I’d agree. But, many organizations fail this basic test. Often times, a very public incident or reputational crisis will prompt an organization to invest resources in public or community engagement. Sometimes this is too late. The reputational damage is already done.

This type of proactive thinking and resourcing is a must for any organization that regularly interacts with the public or multiple community groups. I do have one caveat – where you have the financial means to invest in specialized community/public engagement, then please make that investment. Community engagement is not by default media relations or crisis communications, so having specialized community-focused resources is important for your credibility.

5. All feedback is important, even the negative

If there is one thing that I’ve learned in a very public 20+ year public relations career, it is that not everyone is going to like or love you, or your organization. And, that’s okay. But, it’s important to prioritize receiving and responding to all feedback, not just the positive. A foundation for all effective strategic public relations (and community engagement) plans is an accurate environmental scan. You can’t have an accurate environmental scan, and perspective on your organization, if you omit the critics, naysayers or those with opposing views. I’m not saying to give negative feedback a disproportionate voice, but I am saying that if you ignore it, you are doing so at your own peril.

If your organization conducts regular SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) or PEST (political, economic, social, and technological) environmental scans, ensure they are calibrated for objective accuracy. Don’t hide the negative.

Some organizations will attempt to shield senior leadership from critical perspectives. My view is this is dangerous, as it filters out objectivity and distorts your reality, thus impacting organizational decision-making.

As you can see, putting the public back in public relations is a fairly straight-forward undertaking. No smoke and no mirrors. With an authentic approach you will succeed. Just be true to your organizational values.

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