Get outsiders on your side

Especially good advice for business, non-profit and association managers whose job success depends in large part on the behaviors of their key external audiences.

I refer to behaviors like inquiries on the increase, new waves of specialized employment applications, more and more followup purchases, new levels of membership queries, a substantial boost in capital donations, or more frequent component specifications by engineering firms.

If you are such a manager, you almost assuredly need help in achieving your unit’s operating objectives. Which is why it’s nice to hear that the public relations team assigned to your operation is responsible for providing a large portion of that help.

Two things need to happen to make that a reality. One, it requires more than your oversight. You must stay involved with your public relations folks at every major decision point.

And two, the entire effort must be based on more than a casual debate about which communications tactics should be used.

What is needed is your commitment to a fundamental premise that is the foundation on which your entire public relations effort will be based. A premise like this: People act on their own perception of the facts before them, which leads to predictable behaviors about which something can be done. When we create, change or reinforce that opinion by reaching, persuading and moving-to-desired-action the very people whose behaviors affect the organization the most, the public relations mission is accomplished.

With that established, we can get to work on the blueprint that will help persuade those important members of your key target audiences to your way of thinking. What you hope for then, is follow on stakeholder actions that result in your success as a business, non-profit or association manager.

Before taking any action steps, you need to know how members of your key target audiences perceive you. So, first, you and your PR team need to list those important outside audiences whose behaviors affect your unit the most. Then prioritize them so we can use the audience in first place on that list as our target audience for this article.

Instead of spending considerable money on professional survey work, you and your team can interact with members of your target audience and pose a number of questions designed to draw out any perception problems. “Do you know anything about us? Have you had any contacts with our people? Were they satisfactory? Do you have any problems with our services, products or people?”

As you interact with audience members, watch closely for evasive or hesitant responses to your questions. And be equally watchful for negative misconceptions, rumors, exaggerations, inaccuracies or untruths.

These data are grist for your mill, i.e., the information you need to establish a public relations goal that corrects the offending opinion/perception. Such a goal might look like these: spike that rumor, clarify that misconception, or correct that inaccuracy.

Now, you need a pathway leading to your public relations goal, and that means you must pick a strategy showing you how to get there. Luckily, there are just three strategies in matters of opinion and perception: create perception where there isn’t any, change existing perception, or reinforce it. Just be certain that the strategy you select is a logical fit with the public relations goal you just established.

Now, what you say to members of your target audience must clearly address the offending perception gently but firmly. Your message must be believable, compelling and, at the same time, explain why the current perception is not merely untrue, but unfair. It is no easy job to alter what people believe, which is why writing such a message demands persuasive writing ability.

To maintain the credibility of the message, you may wish to piggy-back it on another announcement or presentation rather than using the higher-profile press release format.

Happily, when it comes to delivering your message to members of your target audience, you have multiple choices for your communications tactics. Everything from newsletters, bulletins and alerts, special events and speeches to print and broadcast interviews, press releases, consumer/member briefings and many more. Just be sure the tactics your use can demonstrate that they reach people similar to those who make up your target audience.

Before long, you, your PR team, and others in your unit will want to see some progress. Best (and most frugal) way to determine that is to return to perception monitoring in the field and ask members of your key target audience the same questions used in the earlier session.

Only this time, you’ll be on alert for indications that the offending perceptions are changing as you planned, along with predictable follow on behaviors.

By the way, things can always move faster by adding other communications tactics, and using them on a more frequent basis.

Yes, for managers whose job success depends to a large degree on the behaviors of their key external audiences, a public relations problem-solving sequence like this one IS especially good advice!

About the author
Bob Kelly counsels, writes and speaks to business, non-profit and association managers about using the fundamental premise of public relations to achieve their operating objectives. He has been DPR, Pepsi-Cola Co.; AGM-PR, Texaco Inc.; VP-PR, Olin Corp.; VP-PR, Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.; director of communications, U.S. Department of the Interior, and deputy assistant press secretary, The White House. Visit: