While public relations remains one of the most misunderstood professions in the Middle East, the future of this fascinating discipline seems to take a turn toward enlightenment – even though the road to a full acceptance is yet to be mastered.
The misunderstanding and confusion of the discipline can, in some cases, lead to considerable image problems. When a passport control officer in one of the busiest airports in the region asked me about my profession, I hesitated for a moment before I said: “Public Relations.” The officer nodded his head and asked with certainty: “So, which airport do you work in?”
“Airport? No, sir. I think you misunderstood me. I meant I work in public relations and communications…You know, reputation management.” The expression on the officer’s face registered utter confusion.
Not to belittle the work of airport public relations, but in some countries helping with airport red tape, visa issuance and VIP assistance are still referred to as public relations. While technically the literal definition fits, the truth is far from right.
Corporate (business to business) public relations is far more advanced, and communication management is more complicated than VIP protocol and responding to travellers’ queries. When public relations professionals plan programs to communicate with the public, the end result – when done properly – can be felt by the client in the form of more awareness and profile visibility for the organization, its services and products.
The educational process that is required to inform the public and the various media institutions in the region about this discipline seems, for many, as a long and tedious process. In fact, public relations agencies have focused on raising the profile of their clients’ products and services without necessarily making an effort to utilize their expertise to correct the fallacies associated with their own profession.
As a newcomer to the Middle East, public relations has made some strides, without necessarily going through the natural stages of development. As a result, the public seems far less educated about the proper make-up and importance of this profession.
As a result of the increasing demand for public relations, mainly from multinational companies with representative offices in the region, more and more focus is being given to the benefits of utilizing the tools of public relations.
Global companies such as Pepsi-Cola International, Johnson & Johnson, etc., have dedicated considerable time and finances for hiring specialized public relations agencies in order to raise their profile within the target markets. Unfortunately, those companies are an exception to the rule.
Increase my Revenue!
To date, there are still some ill-informed corporate executives with the notion that public relations agencies possess magical remedies for increasing their profit margin and attracting customers to buy their products.
In some cases, corporate executives believe that by hiring a public relations agency, the role of their sales, marketing and management team has somewhat shifted to the agency and customers are expected to pour in by the thousands!
An example of this happened during a pitch for a blue-chip company’s account. During the presentation a sales manager asked: “How will you guarantee the increase of our company’s sales?” First, there are no guarantees in public relations; second, the role of public relations is to maximize media and public awareness of a certain business or product which, in turn, improves understanding of the services provided by that company, leading to the sought-after increase in revenue.
Do public relations professionals guarantee that the public will flock to that company and buy everything on the shelf? Certainly not. Public relations is not a substitute, but a support for the sales and marketing teams, whose roles differ from that of public relations.
Since advertising is widely understood among corporations, the media and the public as well, the confusion associated with public relations can in many cases dampen the effects of that discipline – even among people who should be better informed.
According to Leonard Saffir’s Power Public Relations – how to get PR to work for you – it is, unfortunately, not uncommon for an advertising account supervisor, meeting with the client and the public relations agency to demand that the public relations agency “place” a press release or an editorial in precise co-ordination with an ad campaign.
Worse yet, the client might not be up-to-speed on public relations, so public relations practitioners have the not-so-envious task of defending their reasoning as to why releases cannot be dictated to the editors or “placed” on a certain day or page.
It is a awkward situation, where public relations practitioners try to conduct an instant course on the discipline, while at the same time making an effort not to seem like they are making excuses in advance for lack of performance. As correctly stated in Leonard Saffir’s Power Public Relations – how to get PR to work for you -: “Public relations literacy should be a job requirement for corporate executives and advertising professionals.”
Once the corporate executives take care of the educational part and a proper understanding of the discipline is established, the next step should be to choose a professional public relations agency that can deliver high standard services in accordance to the requirements of the organization.