Sunday, March 1, 2009

May the real PR rise?

by Ronald Jabal
(NOTE: This post is a finalist in the Top 10 Posts of the Year in the 2009 Philippine Blog Awards)

“Oh PR ka na pala”, - that was what my former colleagues in the Press told me, more than a decade ago, when they found me on the “other side of the fence”. This statement, when followed with eyes-squinting or worse, eye-rolling and then a quick cold distant, “hafta-go”, is robust with meanings. Suddenly, I am different.

When one hears the phrase (usually a stable in banter among friends), “ang PR PR mo talaga!” followed by a hefty laughter – one is left to wonder what do friends actually mean. When officemates tell you point blank, one day in the office pantry, “Huwag ka ngang mag PR dyan!” – which to some is indeed replete with emotive colors, one is again at a loss on what the statement really means.

Most of the times we assume we know what people mean by these statements, and yet we still ask ourselves, (and here I am having a Carrie Bradshaw moment), “What does PR really mean?

I will not bore the readers of this tongue-in-cheek thought piece with a textbook definition. Nor will I write here a litany of what PR teachers (like me) tell students about what PR practitioners (like me again, grrr) do. Let me, however, tell what PR people do and some people perceived that PR practitioners do.

From the term Public Relations, we can already deduce, without the need for Mr. Webster that PR is about relating to the public. No brainer indeed. It is in the process of relating to these various publics that interpretations seep in.

Many think PR work is organizing parties. It is about dressing up, feeling and looking good, hobnobbing with corporate bigwigs, celebrities, powers-that-be, the elite and the pseudo-elites, the wanna-be-seen, the “it” and the “in” crowd, the “members-only” group, the social climbers, the “xoxo” gossip club etc. Hence, sometimes, people look at the PR person as somebody with an easy life, thus the expression “pa PR,PR”. To some extent, PR work involves these activities.

Many think PR work is about employing dirty tricks - keeping the FACE of clients/bosses even themselves through ingratiation or worse, outright lying, hence the expression “huwag ka ngang mag PR”. At times, PR work involves, as some people perceived (hmmm.. actually see), paying people up for press coverage, hence the expression “PR ka nga” – with PR as the term and as a profession becoming a pejorative word. To some extent, this is also true.

Just imagine a student of PR being confronted by these realities. Would you still want to become a PR practitioner?

While the above-mentioned issues are true to some extent (but not true all the times), there is a lot more to PR. And there are more PR practitioners that remain true to the noble practice of Public Relations as a profession.

In crisis situation where advertising money shrinks but competition remains stiff, PR is the best weapon of companies. Even non-government and government entities which promote their services and accomplishments rely on PR as their platform. And PR is not hard sell compared with advertising – a lesson advertising agencies embrace with gusto.

Nowadays, the line between “above the line” and “below the line” has become blurred. Editorial spaces used to be the playground of PR practitioners – a testing ground of how good a PR practitioner writes and frames his/her stories and how close is his/her relationship with reporters and editors, deskmen and producers.

Today, it is not uncommon to see the emergence of “branded “ content – editorial stories containing product features, celebrity endorsers, brand events to name a few being given editorial spaces. And people patronize these products because the “content” is not made to appear as advertisements but stories written by reporters/editors - stories that were earlier distributed/released by PR practitioners – thereby giving an air of legitimacy to the ads-cum-news features. PR is the new adman at less cost!

PR has also ceased to become just a vehicle to help inflate bottomlines. PR is now involved in social causes – transforming corporations as community citizens. Instead of merely informing, PR engages and harnesses people and businesses towards a collective action on issues such as health, environment, child and women’s rights, ageing, equality etc. Indeed, PR has placed the heart where it should be. It is this humanizing role that differentiates the current practice of PR.

I look forward to the day when a new expression on PR practitioner will be made. “Wow PR ka? Galeng naman. Kainggit!”.

There is however one role that the PR industry has not practiced to the fullest and that is to help define the public agenda in the country that the media will cover and that the policy and decision makers will heed.

In a country where public agenda (major concerns, issues, wish, wants, desires etc) is virtually non- existent; where the policy agenda is defined by personal interests or is a reaction to issues unearthed and covered by the press (the media agenda), the PR practitioner has a distinct role.

With his/her close ties with the Press which has partly defined the behavior of both elected and appointed officials, the PR practitioner can rally behind a particular social, political, cultural, and environmental issue and release them to the press. This way the public gets to read/watch/hear these issues helping solidify its own agenda. Lawmakers and executive officials who doggedly
follow press coverages believing that they can ignite public outcry can also improve its agenda.

While this may sound too grandiose and yet simplistic in approach, the role is not an impossible task. If the current roster of PR practitioners cannot do it, the future PR – yes YOU - who are reading this material can help realize this simple dream.

By then we may hear the expression “Ang galing nya grabe! kasi PR sya eh”.