By Mark Blackney
A chamber of commerce fills many roles in the community. We boost the economy, work with our members, the city and schools, present events and festivals and actively participate in advocacy. We also serve as the “go to” place for answers to many questions from the public.
One area I enjoy is being a resource for college and high school students who often come in to the office searching for advice on a variety of subjects. It’s flattering to be considered an expert on diverse topics.
Last week a group of high school students from the Center for Advance Research and Technology, CART, wanted to speak with us about public relations. Before their arrival, we discussed what they may need to know. Do they want to have an overview of public relations itself? Are they acting as a business and its needs for PR? Or, are they going into public relations and want to know about career choices. Since none of us has a formal PR education, we were hoping it wasn’t the latter.
Of course it was PR careers so we did the best we could to offer advice.
According to the Public Relations Society of America, “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics”. To many that means advertising, marketing and promotions.
We talked about how to create an effective ad, article or public service announcement; how the first sentence has to “hook” the potential client to get him to continue reading the message. You have to be efficient and cater to your specified market and choose the best format to reach the most people. Millions of dollars are spent on creating just the right slogan. Just ask companies that buy a 30 second Super Bowl ad.
We then covered media appearances, covering both positive and negative issues. Positive appearances cover good news or promotions. They’re actually fun and easy to do unlike addressing negative topics. These are the hard ones because you’re talking about uncomfortable issues. If it involves another person’s comments, you don’t always know what has been said prior to your interview so you have to be very careful what you say. Listen intently to the question, answer truthfully but positively and watch your body language. You never know how your words will be edited or spun so you have to be very circumspect.
We sequed into the good and bad of social media and the internet. In today’s world, a positive or negative comment or video is sent to thousands of people with a click of a button. And you have to know how to handle the results. Read the comments several times, keep your response succinct and most importantly, don’t reply in haste or anger. Sometimes your reply does more damage than the original comment.
As we considered PR with the students, we realized that PR is not necessarily a formal response or marketing tool. PR exists every time you open your mouth from the day you are born when you cry to elicit a response from your caretaker. That’s PR in its purest form.
We told the students that we were committing PR in the conference room. They had to ask the right questions to get the best answers from us so their presentation to their teacher would earn them a good grade. We in turn wanted to give the right answers so they would go away thinking that the Clovis Chamber has the smartest people in the world.
From the time you conceive of a business or career choice you involve PR. You ask the right questions of experts, you convince the bank to give you that loan, you talk with the landlord for the best lease conditions and you negotiate with your vendors for the lowest prices.
Once your business opens, every word and action impacts the public’s opinion of your company – your location and condition of your building, the way your receptionist answers the phone, the way you drive if your logo is on your car and of course, your customer service. Every impression of your company is either positive or negative. Most you have control over, some you don’t.
And when things do go wrong, be quick to ameliorate the problem whether you’re at fault or not. Apologies are a quick fix to most situations and make the customer feel better. Remember the old adage – an unhappy customer tells 10 of his friends.
Earlier I mentioned the number of phone calls we receive for information. Even though it’s not part of our actual mission, we answer most of them. A quick 5 minute internet search for a phone number usually results in a grateful “thank you” . That person hangs up the phone thinking, “How nice of the Clovis Chamber”. Bingo – another positive impression of the Chamber that will pay off with dividends.
And when we can’t take care of a request such as the man who wanted us to print out his PGE bill and mail it to him, we say “No” with a smile.
We then reminded the students the role PR plays in their lives. Any public action or comment can come back and haunt you. We discussed at length how that YouTube video or Facebook post of them being silly lasts forever and that employers are using them as criteria for employment. Unfortunately, pictures and posts are made public by others that can ruin reputations. Privacy seems to be a distant memory in today’s world.
In a way I worry about today’s electronic world where people have less control over their reputations. Through the anonymity of the internet, cowards and nasty people can destroy a person’s character faster than a finger snap. Repairing it is hard to do. After several hours, I want to believe the students left with a better understanding of the importance of public relations and I wished them great success in their career choices. As they left the building, I was also hoping they’d believe that the Clovis Chamber has the smartest people in the world. If so, our public relations was a success.