A new PR paradigm

How re-thinking the public relations model unlocks new value to organizations

By Jason Sprenger

Whether you work in public relations or not, defining and explaining the value of what we do is really hard. PR practitioners have come to be known in many circles as spin doctors, party planners or simply people that companies call when a crisis situation hits. To many professionals, these common stereotypes aren’t all that flattering, yet I still hear about them all the time.

Instead, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the leading PR trade organization, defines the profession and the value it brings much more broadly. It says public relations is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” There’s nothing here about spinning facts or planning wild events.

Yet for many, this is hard to grasp. To really understand this definition, let’s break it down a bit:

The word “strategic.” Public relations, when used most effectively, is considered and weighed at the highest levels of an organization. Why? Because communications are the basis of absolutely everything in life. A piece of verbal or nonverbal communication is at the center of every interaction, and every interaction has consequences from which others establish positive or negative beliefs, opinions and value systems. Those qualities inform loyalties, personal and professional priorities and ultimately, buying decisions. Because words and actions have such direct consequences and far-reaching implications, they should be managed with appropriate care.

The phrase “communications process.” Communication is definitely part art; there are seemingly infinite ways to inform, persuade and/or entertain someone. At the same time, communication also is part science. Basic communications theory holds that there are several components of successful message transmission — senders, receivers, channels, noise that could distort a message and many more. Each component should be carefully considered so as to maximize the efficiency and impact of an organization’s communications.

The phrase “mutually beneficial relationships.” In business as in life, each party in a relationship has to benefit from their role in it or the relationship could dissolve. Organizations should communicate in ways that underscore and reinforce the value that their stakeholders receive, and show appreciation for those relationships. By doing this, organizations stay on good terms with those whom they depend upon.

The word “publics.” A “public” is a type of audience. Employees, clients, consumers and communities are just some of them. At their best, PR programs take every single one into account and cater to each of them specifically.

As you can see, PR can be an incredibly vague discipline. It’s so abstract in nature, in fact, that it’s hard to fully comprehend all of the pieces and how they all fit together — and even more, how to build PR programs that work. So what does all of this really mean? How do we translate this into concepts and practices that will help our organizations achieve their goals?

To help solve these challenges, I recently introduced the Umbrella Model of Public Relations. It includes 11 different elements — the entire spectrum of how organizations use communications to build, maintain and grow relationships with their stakeholders. Each element on its own can deliver remarkable value when used in the proper context, and elements also can be deployed together as part of bigger programs to drive more results and bring synergies and efficiencies. Organizations will decide what program scope best supports its unique objectives and operations. Regardless of scope, however, the Umbrella Model can serve as a reminder of what communications tools are available to them as well as a roadmap to use to build the right program.

There’s a tremendous opportunity (and quite frankly, a real need) in the business world today for PR to add more value. In my experience, the first step toward unlocking this potential is simply for more of us to recognize what PR really is and what it can do in the first place. It’s much bigger and broader than most of us realize. With a better grasp of the tools at our disposal and how we use them to build and wield influence, we can develop much better strategies and ultimately do more for the organizations we represent. This is how a reference tool like the Umbrella Model can be especially helpful.

The second step to unlocking added value, then, is to acquire the skills and perspective needed to strategize and execute well. The true magic of PR — the secret sauce, if you will — lies in knowing how elements can be applied alone or together with others to drive a particular set of outcomes. No two organizations or objectives are exactly the same, and as such no two communications programs should be exactly alike. It’s this ability to discern an organization’s situation, apply the right elements at the right time and fit the puzzle pieces together that makes a communications program really work — and that separates the good professional communicators from the great ones.


Jason Sprenger is the president of Game Changer Communications, and the current president of the Minnesota Chapter of PRSA.