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Public Affairs and Reputation

Public Relations At Its Best Never Addresses Products or Services.

By Thomas J. Roach

Public relations is different from branding, marketing and advertising because it is more subtle. It persuades through reputation.

Other forms of business communication make bold claims about products and services; they employ repetition and coordinate messages and symbols that all make direct statements. Public relations at its best never addresses products or services. Instead, it shows the public that the organization is honest, competent and caring.

To the uninitiated this might seem less effective than self-promotion, but it is actually more effective. Self-promotion has two built-in problems; it is less engaging and it makes listeners skeptical. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between the degree of self-promotion and the level of effectiveness of the message.

Opposites Attract

Public relations is the opposite approach. It infers that products and services are superior without actually stating it. This is an example of an ancient understanding of the rhetorical/cognitive process of persuasion that holds that listeners are less likely to identify with or even remember an argument that is spelled out in detail, and more likely to remember and identify with an argument that leaves gaps for them to fill in.

More importantly, public relations doesn’t compromise the trust factor to make self-serving claims. It makes trust the message, and if effective it decreases skepticism to the point that listeners not only drop their guard, but will make the arguments about quality for themselves.

This may sound academic, but it has a very practical application in public affairs. It suggests that public communication from the quarry is most effective if it isn’t about the quarry. Every community has issues of public interest involving broad topics like crime, health, recreation, education, and culture. Public involvement with these issues enhances the reputation of the organization and can have a powerful influence on conclusions the public draws about issues like zoning in which the organization is directly involved.

Three Main Channels

There are three main channels used to communicate with community publics: news releases, speaking engagements and participation in organizations. Here is an example of a communication campaign that is not self-serving and would build trust and respect:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death every year, with most of the victims being children. In the U.S., non-boating related drownings claim more than 3,000 lives every year.

While abandoned quarries account for less than one percent of drowning victims, water safety is a natural cause for businesses in the aggregate industry to take up. Many people have fond memories of an old swimming hole they went to one summer with friends, but chances are that swimming hole was an abandoned mining site and they were trespassing and putting themselves at great risk. A campaign for water safety would begin with collecting statistics and researching issues. It also would require investigating the legal and illegal water activities in the immediate area.

A spokesperson from the company could be designated and a news release sent out announcing his or her appointment and the objectives of the water safety campaign. Later news releases might announce speaking engagements and seminars and might release statistics about water-related accidents in the area. This could be augmented with public service announcements and interviews on local radio.

Speaking of . . .

Another arm of the campaign could be speaking engagements at local clubs, schools, and community organizations. The campaign could name additional spokespersons and make them available to give short speeches and field questions. Informative presentations need to be planned and practiced by the speakers and monitored with brief evaluation forms that they pass out and collect when they are done. Unprepared or offensive speakers will not help the company’s reputation.