In my opinion public relations is about communication, building understanding, relationships, changing perceptions and (if you’re really good) changing behaviour. It’s about ‘relating’ to the ‘public’. In one of my favourite books ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ Stephen Covey discusses changing perception. He tells the story of being on a train, quietly reading his paper when a man with a bunch of noisy and poorly behaved children board. Stephen and many other passengers become annoyed at the parent’s inability to make any attempt to control his children. He finally snaps at the man, demanding he control his children. The man distractedly replies, apologises then mumbles an explanation that their mother has just died and neither he, nor his children, have any idea how to deal with it.
Stephen’s understanding, behaviour and actions immediately change as a result of this communication. His feelings change to compassion and his actions change to offer help and support. It’s amazing how words, spoken or written, can provide understanding, awareness, insight and ultimately lead to behavioural change.
I started my career in communications after the events of the Victorian bushfires. I was inspired by journalists covering the events and their ability to disseminate critical safety messages, encourage fundraising and profile stories behind the fires. I was amazed at how quickly the Red Cross set up an appeal where all Australians could donate to help these families in need. But I was confused – how did so many Australians know about the tragedy unfolding in Victoria? How had so many people’s perception change to compassion and sympathy? How did the Red Cross know what was happening so quickly? It was through communication – media relations, journalism, social media.
This is what we do – we communicate, we change perceptions, we influence behaviour.
Scaling it back down to what we do here at The Red Republic, this is a text a received from my dad last week…
For years and years and years our team has worked with the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services on their annual ‘Don’t be a fool, change your smoke alarm’ campaign, encouraging Queenslanders to change their smoke alarm on April 1 (April Fools). Each year our team rings more than 100 local papers, radio stations and TV channels asking them to share this information with their viewers… pleading for them to communicate this critical safety message.
They listened, they communicated the message and as a result, many people changed their smoke alarm batteries on April 1. Many people including the owner of this house at Biddleston, west of Toowoomba, which went up in flames on April 1. Incredibly, the owner had read a story about the ‘Don’t be a fool, change your smoke alarm’ campaign and changed his batteries the day before.
We were able to pin point exactly which member of our staff had called his local paper a few weeks prior, asking the journalist to run the story and share this critical safety message. It’s not every day in the PR world you see direct results like this. Most of the time we’re working tirelessly behind the scenes to get key messages heard, shared and actioned. Most of the time we know people hear us, we just hope their actions change.
If you really want to know what PR’s do think about major community events that have impacted your life – how did you hear about them? Why did you go to them? What did you do differently as a result? Think about someone who you treated differently once you understood their story. Think about that man on the train with the noisy kids and how you would react differently if his story had been communicated to you. That’s my job.