Most small and mid-size business owners “get” marketing. They understand how important it is to define a marketing strategy to attract new customers, satisfy their needs and hopefully keep them coming back for more. But when the subject of public relations (PR) comes up, many are left scratching their heads, or if they give PR much thought at all they consider it an avenue for free publicity.

That’s on a good day. On a bad day PR practitioners may be called spin doctors or propagandists. In the urban dictionary, PR is slang for an officer’s nightstick. Some journalists view PR representatives as shields to keep the press at bay when a top executive, celebrity or political elite comes under fire. When a well-planned PR campaign stunt becomes a train wreck (like when LifeLock’s CEO gave out his social security number on TV and dared people to steal his identity, which they did), often the first to ask, “What were they thinking?” are fellow PR flacks.

In reality, whether working in the private or public sector, it is the PR pro’s primary job to act as the client’s advocate to advance an effective and coherent messaging strategy, promote the free flow of communication, and build trust with the public by disclosing information with accuracy and honesty.

To be sure, there are many diverse jobs and roles in the PR profession just as there are in the marketing field. And PR may not have the glamorous aura that advertising does (courtesy of Mad Men). But our role is vital to promote open communication in a democratic society. I would argue at a time when global leader Edelman Worldwide reports trust in institutions (business, government, media) is at its lowest ebb, PR is needed now more than ever to restore credibility. That is because while marketing activities are focused largely on sales, PR is about building relationships, understanding and influence with all of a company’s stakeholders.

When it comes to communicating your brand marketers may be the promise makers, but PR folks are the promise keepers.

Chances are, some of the most innovative and breakthrough campaigns in recent memory have a PR specialist or agency behind them. A few examples include:

  • Ogilvy PR introduced the Red Dress as a symbol to advance awareness for heart disease and women’s health. This campaign quickly became a social phenomenon, persuading celebrities, politicians and business women across America to don red dresses to draw attention to the risk of heart disease—the number one killer of women—and create a national movement for improved female heart health (The Holmes Report.)
  • Unilever’s toiletry brand Dove became a household name thanks to its ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ which used real women in ads rather than the stick-thin models favored by rivals. The campaign kicked off in 2003 with adverts featuring six ordinary women in their underwear and boosted sales by 700%. (
  • Always #LikeAGirl campaign—developed to inspire confidence in teen girls—won top honors at the 2015 Cannes Lions Awards, meeting all the key criteria for a Grand Prix: creativity, earned trust and measurable behavior change.

    This was a collaboration between PR firm MSLGroup and venerable ad agency Leo Burnett, originator of the campaign concept. The campaign asked why the phrase ‘Like A Girl’ had become an insult, and demonstrated how damaging these words are to girls, particularly at puberty. Always partnered with award-winning documentarian Lauren Greenfield to produce a video featuring people of all ages interpreting the phrase ‘like a girl’, and MSLGroup’s influencer and media campaign helped the video go viral. (HolmesReport)

    Perhaps the area that PR has had the most influence on is the concept of social responsibility, the idea that companies have an obligation to act for the benefit of society. This involves looking beyond the economic impact of your business. It includes embracing business practices that promote ethical behavior, environmental sustainability and finding ways to give back in the communities where you operate. Some call this the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.

    Social responsibility theory was born in the 1940s, derived to combat the pressures that threatened freedom of the press. As America, Europe and Asia emerged from World War II and confronted the emerging Cold War, the tension between government, the media and business intensified. In 1944 the Hutchins Commission was formed to answer the question, “What is the proper function of media in a modern democracy?” At the time large and powerful publishers were viewed with suspicion and distrust by the public who believed they had monopolistic tendencies and selfish, often politically motivated interests.The Hutchins Commission concluded (after four years of deliberation) that the press has “a moral obligation to consider the overall needs of society when making journalistic decisions in order to produce the greatest good.”

    The belief that business enterprises also have a social responsibility and greater obligation to societal interests began to take hold just as the PR profession was taking off.

    The Father of PR: Bernays the Great Communicator

    Until Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, began employing many of the tactics still used by PR pros today, most in the field commanded little respect. Bernays became a proponent of the power of persuasion to shape opinion and influence behavior after publishing a play in a medical journal to curb the spread of syphilis. On the heels of that success, during World War I he and other PR men of the time were recruited by President Woodrow Wilson to form a Committee on Public Information (CPI) to help get the masses behind the war effort.

    In small towns across America, the CPI launched the first influencer campaign, calling on trusted local leaders—bank managers and other authority figures—to rouse the public spirit while tamping out anti-war sentiment. These trusted leaders were called “four-minute men” (alluding to the short, ostensibly impromptu nature of these gatherings carefully crafted by the CPI).

    Bernays was a journalist by trade and the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who had written extensively about the power of the unconscious mind and how these thought processes impact our opinions, interests and motivations. Based on Freud’s theories, Bernays developed what he called the “engineering of consent” writing a landmark book on the subject and use of propaganda in 1928. At the heart of the propaganda movement, Bernays believed that established ideas and opinions could be changed and influenced by those in a trusted position.

    Alas, Bernays writings and tactics attracted the interest of Joseph Goebbels (even though Bernays was a Jew), who became an admirer and the minister of propaganda for the Third Reich giving the propaganda profession its first serious PR problem. So Bernays replaced the word propaganda with the term public relations and used his skills to convince:

    • Americans to eat eggs and bacon for breakfast (doctors he surveyed favored a protein-laden morning meal);

    • Women to smoke Lucky Strikes (cigarettes became a symbol of the suffragette movement challenging male power); and

    • The nation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the light bulb in 1929 with the “Lights Jubilee” (a six-month campaign featuring Henry Ford, Orville Wright, John D, Rockefeller, Jr., Madame Curie and President Hoover).

    Bernays was paid $25,000 by the tobacco industry for the Lucky Strike’s “Torches of Freedom” campaign, an extraordinary sum considering these are Depression-era dollars. He devised a PR strategy to erase the social stigma associated with women smokers (believed to be the filthy habit of prostitutes and other fallen women). By capitalizing on the growing momentum from the early women’s movement (sending smart, young models to the New York City Easter Parade to smoke in public for the very first time), he convinced millions that smoking was an “expression of their new-found strength and freedom.” In perhaps the first culture war, these liberated women in their desire to be considered equal to men (who smoked in abundance) gladly put their independence on public display, a moment captured by the faithful press, of course, for all the world to see.

    Today’s cynics may call this “fake news,” but the PR and advertising industries owe Bernays a nod for perfecting campaigns that provoke powerful, emotional responses. To his credit, in the 1970s Bernays became a champion of PR accreditation and specialized curricula at universities to transform public relations into the respected profession it is today.

    Truth, Transparency and the Responsible Way

    Businesses that practice social responsibility generally have the goodwill of the public because they are perceived as companies who care, are accountable to a wide array of interests beyond pure profit, and are contributing in ways for the social good. They also are admired because they behave ethically and are open and transparent in their business dealings. Large, publicly traded companies, such as Starbucks, the Hershey Company and Apple, annually put out Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports to share their progress on meeting their goals and often enjoy the best reputations for citizenship, governance and workplace practices. This is, in part, because they work hard at it, but also because they recognize how much the public values and rewards businesses doing the right thing and using their resources for the greater good.

    Small and mid-sized businesses, too, can benefit from CSR efforts, but this takes a strategic approach that moves beyond pure philanthropy to examine how these activities fit into the purpose, culture and DNA of the enterprise. Personally, I’m a believer in aligning causes with culture and encouraging charities and companies to establish long-term partnerships. In addition to the shared brand equity that comes with these relationships, both parties are more likely to benefit from the collaboration if each has a stake in its success well beyond a one-off event.

    “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” — Abraham Lincoln

    I work closely with Habitat for Humanity, a respected charity most people are familiar with and associate with Jimmy Carter and home building in far-flung places like Haiti, Myanmar and Slovakia. But chances are Habitat builds homes with partner families in need of decent, affordable shelter in your own back yard.

    Photo courtesy of Forth Worth Habitat

    In Ozaukee County, Wisconsin where I call home, we believe a decent place to live and an affordable mortgage create a situation where low-income homeowners can save more, invest in education, pursue opportunity and have more financial stability. Cynthia, a single mom and new Habitat homeowner in our Grafton community, is now pursuing her dream to become a nurse after moving out of low-income housing in Milwaukee. Since relocating, Cynthia’s daughter, Harmonee, is doing well in school and mom is attending Milwaukee Area Technical College while working two jobs.

    These empowering Habitat stories are not unique, but they are uniquely ours. Many businesses in our community with a stake in the home building marketplace—realtors, builders, bankers and materials suppliers—have a unique brand affinity for our cause and support our work by volunteering, providing financial aid and through in-kind donations. They are inspired by the strength, stability and self-reliance our Habitat homeowners share and, in turn, their commitment to higher purpose keeps the cycle of giving going strong.

    So whether your business is large or small, a start-up or well established, family owned or publicly traded, next time you are evaluating your marketing mix, consider all that a smart PR strategy can do to build relationships with customers, suppliers, employees and the local community. It could be the best investment you make this year.

    The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my current or former employers, my friends and colleagues, anyone I may have met in the past or may meet in the future.

About Mary Brophy

Mary has held leadership positions at the world’s largest independent PR agency, Edelman Worldwide, Cramer-Krasselt, Jacobson Rost and other leading agencies. Her background includes advising CEO-level executives on a variety of crisis communications and reputational issues.