When I was in school, if we had a situation where information was needed on a particular subject, probably an event in history or some facts related to geography or biology which could have expanded our knowledge,the only sources to turn to were our textbooks, or if we were lucky (as was the case with me), an uncle who owned the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was at that time the ultimate source of information.
Today, we have the internet. Whatever bit of information we need can be downloaded in mere seconds and we could be that much more knowledgeable on that particular subject, which is why it amuses me to hear radio quizzes that, although they sound like they are testing one’s intellectual ability, are probably only testing how fast one can get to the information on the net, to give the right answer.
It has become even easier now with almost all phones being internet enabled these days, making the web accessible to anyone almost anywhere.
However, getting back to my point of information overload, it is not a question of how much information is out there, but rather what sieve is used to filter this information for it to become useful.
As a Public Relations (PR) consultant, I know that this is my challenge when disseminating information. How much of what we put out into public space is really consumed by our target audience? The growth of internet news is, in fact, one of the main causes of this information overload. It’s not that I’m saying this growth is bad. It adds to pluralism and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
But the challenge today is not only what a PR person can get published in the media for their clients, but how well they use the medium to get to the audience. Taking this as a problem for which a solution has to be found, public relations companies have to be talking more to their clients about strategy in positioning their key messages rather than how many times they can get the same message published in different publications.
The difference between these two platforms is not subtle. It is coming from the point of view of whether we are using PR to manage perception or PR to simply do marketing.
It’s not that we cannot use PR to support marketing and sales as ultimately a company’s PR efforts must support its bottom line, but when PR copy is used directly in place of advertisements, they lose their effectiveness altogether and furthermore, dilutes the key public relations messages they need to outline.
For example, if we are giving priority to only positioning products and services in our press releases as against company policies, ideologies and concepts, one would be wasting precious resources as that entity would eventually lose credibility with the media as well as the public.
PR as a whole should be handling more of the big picture than the nitty-gritty of marketing, although some aspects of marketing in the messaging might be inevitable and also a necessity depending on a company’s business profile.
As a practice when people get into the columns of a newspaper they are looking for more depth of information than what could be found in an advertisement. But if the columns of a newspaper (especially business) are bombarded only with product and service information merely for the sake of marketing it to the public, I would go so far as to say that we as an industry would be crossing the line.
Therefore, the challenge for PR companies is to hold their ground in some way or the other when dealing with clients who make demands on using newspaper columns only for the marketing of their products.
The PR profession in Sri Lanka still does not have any recognised body or association to set industry standards. It is then up to individual PR companies to maintain some sanity in the profession.
Some weeks ago I wrote a column about the PR industry having concerns about standards in the mass media industry. I wrote that the PR industry is adjacent to the media – but as much as we expect standards from the media, we as an industry have to also start setting some rules for its betterment.
The PR industry, properly channelled, can become an important value-adding tool to the media and vice versa.
(The writer, a PR consultant and head of Media360, was previously a mainstream journalist in print and electronic media. He also edits a new media website.)