A Reflection and Life Lessons

I traveled last night to Cambridge for a congenial reception held by the research center & think tank Political Research Associates (PRA) for the introduction of their new Executive Director, Tarso Luis Ramos. In 2008, and a junior in college, I served as the Public Relations/Editorial Intern for the progressive organization and I know Luis Ramos from my time there when he was the Research Director. So, I was appreciative and excited to be invited to attend the event. Even though I became lost on my way back to Brighton (instead of a 15 minute ride it took me 2 hours!), I was glad I went because besides seeing old friends, the evening got me critically thinking about the profession of public relations, what I have learned since an intern there and what I ultimately want out of a career in the field.

As I was sitting in our host’s spacious but increasingly humid living room, I began to think back when I was just starting the internship and what I then perceived was the practice of PR and what its true value and contribution was to the public good as well to the client, organization etc. At that time I had a picture in my mind of PR practice that could best be described by the press agentry/publicity model.

In this one-way asymmetrical model, PR serves a promotional function where the practitioner is a “conduit,” as Millar & Heath write, between an organization and a passive public. There is no strategic management of an organization’s communication function and there is no two-way dialogue between an organization and its stakeholders. Therefore, the organization does not implement any  much needed changes in behavior because they do not open themselves up to receiving relevant info from these stakeholders – for one, because there is no listening or engagement on the part of the organization and two, because the sole purpose here is to push the message out, with very little if at all, research and feedback. “All publicity is good publicity,” right? Wrong. Strong, mutually-beneficial relationships can not and do not form this way. That’s just a fact.

When I first started the internship I received their media list, among other materials, and then began to update it for new contacts that I believed would be interested in giving our authors time and our message, that PRA produces quality, important and useful progressive research and analysis, play. Right off the bat I wrote three or so press releases, back-grounders and put together a media kit.

Unfortunately and incorrectly, I then began a campaign of just blasting out emails, making calls and waiting for responses. There was very little research, genuine engagement on my part, ranking of strategic stakeholders in order of importance and listening first before contacting the media and PRA’s ally’s. Instead of finding out how these producers, journalists and analysts preferred to be contacted, as well as what they cared  and wrote about, I’m sad to say I engaged for the most part in a one-way transfer of information, concentrating on getting the organization into the media and to then achieve publicity for them.

After the first couple of weeks I did see some results (I booked a few interviews in the media for our authors and got an article excerpt placed on an ally’s website), but while I was thinking about how best to make connections and get results, I began to understand what was missing and needed to be put into place to achieve lasting brand recognition and loyalty as well as effective communication with PRA’s stakeholders, such as the media, local government, employees and influencers.

For example, there wasn’t a clear understanding of the power and utility of the iconic Cluetrain Manifesto’s assertion that “markets are conversations,” and that instead of just pushing “the facts,” with a relatively static press release template, a story must be told that connects with each of the niche communities that we are ultimately trying to reach and benefit with our products or services. There wasn’t a strong effort to elicit any response or action on the part of the public and there wasn’t transparent participation or an effort to form lasting, solid relationships. I could go on but I want to make this as succinct as possible.

Now, I can attribute this lack of knowledge and initiative to my inexperience mostly, the length of time I had at the job (about 3 months), and the small, dedicated but overworked and underfunded staff. I believe the important thing now is that I recognize my shortcomings and have been able to correct them and move forward as a stronger communicator at my present job in Suffolk University’s College of Arts & Sciences’ Communications Dept., with a much more strategic and deeper understanding of the practice of PR. Importantly, I understand that the practice of PR has always been oversimplified and that its value to society as a communication mechanism for binding society together and facilitating the “marketplace of ideas” is in fact vital. Considering these facts, the current socialization of media and the power and opportunity PR 2.o provides us, I look to the future with excitement and no regret.

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