Too many think PR is a popularity contest

I was talking with an experienced PR leader about how politely but firmly she makes requests of journalists that cover her brand.

I asked her, have you always been comfortable being direct, or did you grow into it?

She said, “I remember back when I was starting out, I thought I had to make all these people like me.”

That’s a really common belief among PR people. In fact, that inclination may even be what attracted us to the field and makes us good at it. But like any strength, if taken too far, it turns into a weakness.

PR pros can carry this “people-pleasing” mentality into the CEO’s conference room. Sometimes, when brands find themselves under criticism from outsiders, PR pros are inclined to placate those groups, even when the company is committed to its mission.

I’m not talking about “sticking it to the haters.” Not at all. It’s important to learn from those who disagree with you and hone the way you communicate about the issue. But there is an overlooked benefit to holding the line. Not only does your brand forge ahead toward fulfilling its mission, but you actually pull your core supporters closer.

The silent majority sits up in their chairs and figuratively nods – they not only agree with you on the issue, but now they know you’re willing to stick your neck out a bit on an issue or cause they care about.

When I didn’t waver on a topic that a minority of my followers disagreed with, I got this email in response:

Michael, I always enjoy how candid you are AND how you aren't afraid to disagree with individuals. It is refreshing. In addition to this newsletter, I also saw an X thread you joined debating the value of niche PR agencies and journalist relationships earlier this week. Twice in a week! These reasons are precisely why I continue to open your emails each week.

One reason I think PR pros don’t advocate for this approach more is because our PR trade publications highlight as “PR disasters” the occasions when large companies tick off lots of people, and then apologize and recant. Here’s the thing: Unless you’re Google or Delta or Target or one of the few giant companies, there is no such thing as “the general public.” You’re paid to understand your “key publics” – which are usually the ones that keep the money flowing, whether you’re at a company or nonprofit.

When your organization is doing right by those people, you’ll usually ride out any bumps in the road with outsiders.

Even though your natural penchant to make everyone happy with you can make that ride pretty uncomfortable :).

This article was originally published on May 16, 2024

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