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Zsofia Lakatos: I want a relationship!

Zsofia Lakatos: I want a relationship!

Article by Zsofia Lakatos, Managing Director at Emerald Public Relations (Hungary) and WCFA Global Advisory Board Member.

I was recently judging a prestigious communications competition and was shocked to find that there is still no healthy link between the advertising and PR professions. What’s more: there is no relationship at all.

Better and better communication solutions are submitted to the jury - but all of them are sorely lacking something to make them truly effective, truly rounded. I suspect this is because many advertising professionals have no idea what PR people do. Years ago, when I worked for a large communications agency, my colleagues and I used to have a lot of fun being cautiously eyed by people in other divisions. They would come and look at us like we were bazaar monkeys.

Being interesting to others would not be a problem. If they would take - and we would take - that one step to bring us closer to the other. I'm genuinely interested in what goes on in the mind of a creative director, how a digital professional works and what a media buyer does all day. I'd like to believe that there are people who are genuinely interested in what a PR professional does all day and why clients pay more or less for their work.

As the former President of the Hungarian PR Association, I feel entitled to lift the veil on what we do and don't do, what misconceptions we are associated with, and how our work can contribute to successful brand building. As a bonus, I'll also tell you what's sure to freak out a PR professional.

Many people think we are the ones who write the press releases. Well, I've certainly written or corrected thousands of press releases in my life, yet I don't think that's the most important part of our job. It's spectacular, it's true, but writing a press release is only the ultimate step in a process. And the process begins where the work of the co-professionals begins: with research. The trend towards data-driven marketing is also found in PR, but we have a wider range of tools. It includes everything from social listening and focus group research to press coverage analysis, media audits and face-to-face meetings. Contrary to popular belief, we don't talk all the time - my husband would definitely disagree - but we very much keep our eyes and ears open. A PR professional absorbs information wherever he goes, whatever he does, every little bit is valuable. He is always on alert.

Information is power and there is no profession for which this is as true as ours. Because our job is first and foremost to help people understand and communicate messages, we need to know and understand those to whom we are communicating. PR people are very fast, they react instantly to changing circumstances, and they hold an enormous amount of information in their heads to do so. But then why does it take hours to react sometimes, especially in delicate crisis situations? Trust me, we PR professionals have the answer immediately and were ready with the right solution within twenty minutes. However, the authorisation phase can be lengthy, and the PR person cannot act until they have permission.

The most important part of our work - based on the data we have collected during the research - is to formulate messages. I often find that companies and brands are not good at answering seemingly simple questions about who they are, what they do, what they want to say about themselves and to whom. In other words, what is their story. These are the stories that PR professionals create, the stories that live in brands and consumers. That's what makes Coca-Cola a love brand, that's what makes us love The Body Shop.

PR-professionals are masters of storytelling. Public relations is all about getting my story to the public I want to reach, in a way that they will understand and respond to it. When we create a communications strategy, we create and unfold these stories. We influence others with our work, just like marketing, but in a much softer and more nuanced way. Unlike advertising, PR is not necessarily about persuading the recipient to buy, and often we are not trying to persuade them to do anything in particular, but only to influence their opinion.

Once you have the message, the story to tell, the process of what to do (strategy) and how to do it (toolbox) begins. I can safely say that I am biased towards our profession and convinced that PR professionals are God's gift to humanity, but the fact is that there is no wider toolbox than that of Public Relations. Our job is far from being a job of harassing journalists with releases. Press relations are important, journalists are our partners, but the media is only one part of the circle we are dealing with. Alongside it, we communicate with and for stakeholder groups such as employees, potential employees, competitors, public authorities, consumers, and many more. We reach them, we listen to them, we address them in a thousand different ways. Nowadays, it's mostly through social media channels - influencer PR is one of the trendiest areas - but it's just as much the job of PR people to organise a factory event, a family day or a staff competition as it is to write a newsletter or manage so-called informal opinion leaders.

Out in the field
The last place a professional PR person should be is in his office. We're always on the road, if we're not in a face-to-face meeting, we're gathering information or talking on the phone. For us, multitasking is not a challenge, and we always think long term. That's why a PR professional can be a serious cog in a campaign that could jeopardise the company's reputation for short-term gain. After all, we are sworn to protect the reputation of the company, the client, and to build a healthy relationship with all those affected.

One of our most interesting tasks is to find the most effective way to get the message, the story, to the target audience - and that brings us to the channels. For a PR person, a celebrity, a popular vlogger or an employee of a public authority is as much a channel as a journalist or a receptionist at a company. Everyone can be reached differently; everyone is open to receiving a message at a different time and in a different way. In contrast to the mass appeal of billboards, we use sophisticated methods to create a mix that reaches those we want and only those we want. We don't shoot into the blind, instead we communicate in a targeted way to a highly filtered audience. This makes PR work very effective, even if it is often difficult to measure because what is in people's minds is difficult to estimate. While the effectiveness of advertising can be easily measured by traffic data, the PR support for a brand is often only revealed when trouble strikes and allies are needed to defend the brand.

Instead of crisis
Crisis communication is the most visible part of the PR profession, but the reality is that most issues never become crisis situations if the PR professional does their job well. There are a thousand and one cases where a brand can be seriously damaged - in the Facebook world, a less powerful brand can collapse in a day or two - but only a fraction of them is publicised because PR people catch them before they become scandals. How do they do it? They listen and respond immediately, with understanding and empathy, winning the goodwill of even an angry customer or a crazed journalist.

PR professionals are usually less excited by a potential product promotion campaign because our job is not to sell. We can support any marketing campaign, create the story, find the right channels, and get the message across effectively, but the challenge for us is managing and protecting the reputation of companies, institutions, organisations and people. And why is that important? There's a lot of talk about employer branding these days, research is emerging on the subject and sometimes there are conflicting opinions among experts. Some say that money is all that matters to employees and that everything else is bullshit, and others say that it is the company's brand and personality that attracts and retains employees. In my opinion, a job advertisement from an unknown company does not even reach potential employees, it simply does not reach their threshold of interest, so companies need to communicate well and differentiate themselves in the labour market. The same is true for products: an unknown product from an unknown brand is unlikely to be taken off the shelf. But if the consumer has already encountered the brand, the product or even the product category somewhere, they are more likely to try it.

As long as they are not disappointed. As long as they don't change their mind, as long as they feel understood and taken seriously, not lied to. Otherwise, you will block the company, the brand, the product relentlessly and the lost trust will be impossible to regain. That's why it's important to have public relations alongside exciting, colourful advertising campaigns, because smart people think ahead and don't search for the the parachute when they are already falling.

And how can you really upset a PR-professional? It generally saddens us that, despite the fact that our profession is a century old, many marketing professionals still don't understand what PR is for, call us press people and get stuck at “PR articles”. We believe and profess that Public Relations has a place at the core of communications work, that what we do is of strategic importance and rooted in the DNA of the company. The PR professional's place is alongside the CEO, the messages and stories we create are the foundation of all communications, public relations is not a pink icing to frost the finished cake. So, what really upsets a PR professional is this sentence: "We've come up with a campaign. Can you add PR?"