The First Lesson in PR

When I took my first Public Relations class at TCU, on the very first day my professor opened with a saying that she believed illustrated the underlying mentality necessary for good PR work:

“Perception is Reality.”

That is, people will evaluate other people, brands or movements based on their perception. And when they don’t have the full picture, they’ll fill in the blanks with assumptions congruent with their perception.

To most people, this comes off as a negative lesson — that the PR professional’s job is to spin, to lie and cheat people into a false perception. Because, of course, the reality underneath will never be as pretty as we’d like it to be.

But to fully understand where the great Public Relations professionals stand, we need to flip the scenario and focus on the positive side. If we present an honest and likable brand image, we can create an honest and likeable reality for our audience to interact with. And, better yet, the audience will still fill in their information gaps with their own details. But this time, their assumptions will be positive ones: giving the benefit of the doubt, assuming best intentions, and playing devil’s advocate against the opposition.

One of the best illustrations I’ve seen of this concept comes from Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. Sinek proposes that people and organizations best connect with other people by prioritizing their “Why.” By this, he means their purpose or their guiding belief — for instance, Apple’s mantra of “Think Different,” an insistence on challenging the status quo — should guide the person or organization’s actions and statements.

When brands base their communications and activities on their Why, they make a bold statement: “This is who we are and what we stand for.”

Sinek shows how important this is through an example he calls The Celery Test. The basic picture of The Celery Test runs like this: If you have openly made a goal to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle, and you find yourself in the checkout line in a grocery store with a bundle of celery and a package of Oreos, which are you going to keep and which are you going to put back if you really want to order your actions in a healthier way?

This example is relevant to brands as well as people: When we make a statement about who we are and what we stand for, we create a touchstone for our audience to base their perceptions on. And if we want our audience to stay with us, we’re going to eat our Celery. We’re also going to ditch our Oreos, even though they’re delicious when dunked in some milk. Why? Because we’ve signed our identity onto a reality, and we know that everything matters in upholding this reality both for ourselves and for our audience. Pulling this off is hard, but it’s important.

Those who do it best know something else: everything matters. Not just the broad company statements, but also the individual behaviors of every employee. Unfortunately, we must sweat the small stuff.

This is why PR matters. PR doesn’t teach you to spin or lie, it teaches you to care — and care a hell of a lot.

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