Public Relations seem to have become an in-thing course in a number of communication schools in Ghana currently. My little research indicates that a large chunk of first year communication students wish to specialize in public relations and earn a degree in it. This trend is interesting and a change from a few decades ago when journalism was the obvious choice for communication students.
Inasmuch as students are excited about studying public relations in school, from firsthand experience, I observe that most of them have zero idea what public relations is when choosing the course. For the past 4 years, I have asked first year students this question: “What do you think public relations is?” I have received very interesting answers, chief of which are: “It is when a person speaks on behalf of an organization” and “the person who meets with the media and speaks on behalf of the CEO and the organization”. I must admit, there is truth in those answers but that is just a tiny little fraction of what public relations is. My bigger fascination is why the interest in studying a course one knows very little about. On what basis then, are students choosing public relations as a course?
I have however observed, with keener interest, that a number of Ghanaian entrepreneurs, business owners, local organization, and entities also have a skewed view of what public relations is. I have interacted with a number of business owners who feel PR is “making a company look good but doesn’t help my profit”, or even more ridiculous, “making noise in the media when I need money”. This is even more fascinating because public relations has become a necessary communication tool globally for businesses who want to thrive, build strong brands and increase revenue over a long period of time. I guess advertising is easier to comprehend and its spend is tied immediately to sales. I mean you see an Ad on TV, hear it on radio or see the product on a big billboard, and in 5 - 45seconds repeatedly, you are done; the consumer has seen it and is likely to make a purchase the next time they see the product in the shop.
My interest in writing this article, however, is to make a business case for public relations and why it should be every organization’s bloodline, especially SMEs.
The SME-Public Relations Picture
Globally, Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) generally have a major challenge; growing the business and setting it on a progressive trajectory of growth. This arduous challenge, in many instances, may drive a business owner to decide on a sales and marketing-orientated approach to reach target groups.
However, SMEs should bear in mind that they are in business not only because of what they are offering clients (goods, services, ideas) but the value they are providing to their stakeholders in the long haul. SMEs should also realise that there are other stakeholders who can add value or vice versa to your organization, thereby spurring that growth you so desperately are working for or thwarting it. That is where public relations come in.
Now, some scholars have defined PR as "a management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all of the publics on whom its success or failure depends." The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), affirms that at the core of PR is the goal of “…influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across a myriad of platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.”
How does Public Relations help SMEs?
So here is the fact; PR must be at the base of all business relationships/engagements to aid in the awareness of any brand, the growth of the business, the reputation and integrity of the organization and ultimately, the entity’s Return On Investment (ROI).
When you meet a PR consultant, especially as a business owner, you should ask these two critical questions; Why do thriving brands make PR a key part of their operations? and How is the contribution of PR to the overall attainment of business goals measured? These questions would likely provoke a number of PR strategies. Let’s discuss four of them.
Relationships cannot be built on shallowness and superficial values for a long time. No matter how great you look, over time, when people experience you, they determine if you are really what you say or look like you are. Branding goes beyond your image (how you look). Public relations is interested in who you say you are and more importantly being true to who you are. If an organization says it is caring, how are your relationships reflecting this? Your clients, your staff, your community, etc. should experience who you say you are. Have you ever engaged the services of an organization based on an Ad you saw, only to encounter the opposite experience they promised? Branding is a key pillar in public relations.
Publicity [Traditional and Social Media]
Being visible is one thing, but being visible for the right reasons and at the right places is why public relations is essential for SMEs. Small businesses do not need to be everywhere in the media but they need to be strategically positioned with well-thought-out content that meets their client’s needs and is consistent with their brand. Building a solid relationship with the media (Media Relations) and understanding the new digital world (digital and social media) can aid in brand visibility, provide promotion of your brand and is a super help to staying ahead of potential crisis situations.
Issues and Crises
Organizations are not immune to issues and potential crises that can plunge it into obscurity and, sometimes, complete breakdown. We have witnessed how viral videos can destroy, not only the image of an organization, but its business for a long time. How do SMEs avoid crises? How can issues be managed? Public relations is a critical tool in this area. SMEs should not wait for a crisis before getting PR support. It will not only save your face; it will save your business!
Stakeholder Relationship Management
Everyone likes to feel loved, special and cared for. Your stakeholders also want to be sure they are dealing with a genuine organization. You must therefore have a plan to manage your stakeholder relationships. Remember, good stakeholder relationship management increases referrals because customers/other stakeholders will only refer you to others when they know and respect you.
The PR Case for SMEs
Businesses must recognise that PR is a continuous and a long term effort to build one’s image and have a top recall value among your target audiences. It is a diligent process and an advantage when PR is incorporated in a business strategy.
As brands, SMEs will have competitors, each vying for the attention of their target demographic. What you can put ahead of the chasing pack is a well thought-out and seamlessly executed Public Relations strategy. It is time to take control of PR tools and capabilities available to you to become proactive about your brand presence. It is a tried and tested model for growth!
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