Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

Bill Gates once said, “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget, I would spend it on public relations.”

That’s sage advice, but what is public relations or PR?

PR is not a science. It’s a communications art. It is the art of polishing reputations, of building positive business images, of reinforcing who you are and what you stand for in the business community. Every day, PR defines your business in the eyes and minds of current and potential customers and clients. Positive PR is one of the most powerful forces in modern society. When it comes to putting more black in your bottom line, neither marketing nor advertising can deliver like positive PR.

When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to meet with Edward Bernays, often called “The father of public relations”. He was in his twilight years, but his mind and humor were laser sharp. Five of us graduate students sat on the floor of his hotel room while he perched on the edge of his bed, his feet not touching the carpet. We were eagerly anticipating hearing of his PR successes and triumphs and of speculating on what might be in store for us when we pursued our own careers.

That’s not what he talked about. Mr. Bernays instead focused on “reputation management”. He emphasized the importance of conducting PR activities with integrity and ethics, of employing strategies that move people and organizations to positive outcomes, of considering long-term consequences of short-term actions.

As an example, Mr. Bernays told us of a PR campaign he undertook in 1929 when the dangers of smoking were not yet understood, but when women who did smoke in public were viewed in negative ways. Mr. Bernays was hired to change perceptions of women smoking in public. He did that by forging relationships with many high society matrons, then convincing them to walk in the New York Easter parade while smoking a cigarette.

The campaign was wildly successful. It launched Mr. Bernay’s stellar career. His client list grew to include Procter & Gamble, Cartier, Best Foods, CBS, United Fruit Company, General Electric, Dodge Motors, the Public Health Service, Knox-Gelatin, and numerous non-profit organizations. Yet Mr. Bernays spoke only of the Easter Parade campaign. Decades after the event, he was haunted that he had used PR for something that ultimately caused more harm than good. PR, he stressed, is a double-edged sword.

Positive PR involves a commitment to work daily on your business reputation, to consider everything you say and do in terms of how it will reflect on you. Positive PR involves a commitment to serious planning, to recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities in ways that benefit clients and customers and elevates your public image. Positive PR involves looking beyond the here and now to consideration of what might come later.

As we left our meeting with Mr. Bernays those many years ago, he gave each of us an autographed picture. He gave it as a reminder that building, strengthening and sustaining positive PR takes time, attention to details and awareness of current and changing conditions. It takes consultation and a willingness to make more moves than there are on a chessboard. If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is. PR is a complicated undertaking. No matter how skillfully a PR campaign is conceived and how carefully will be implemented, there are pluses and minuses to outcomes. Those must be weighed and balanced against integrity and ethics.

That’s why that autographed picture hangs on my office wall.

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising. 
Visit www.comm-concepts.com or call 303-651-6612.

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