Singaporean newspaper The Strait Times recently completed a survey on people’s perception of essential jobs. The result shows that public relations (PR) was ranked third in the top 5 of non-essential jobs, only after artist and telemarketer. Social media manager, a branch within the PR profession, wasn’t viewed any more favorably as the job also showed up in the list of ‘Jobs I don’t want to do.’
Widely perceived as a glamorous profession that demands practitioners to be graceful communicators and networking experts, and even sometimes as ‘manipulators’ of the public’s narratives – then why is PR viewed so critically through the eyes of Singaporeans? Would the same survey result hold true to the Vietnamese public? And how can PR practitioners ‘save’ the reputation of their own profession and demonstrate the value of PR to the public?
- Public understanding of PR in Vietnam: Doesn’t go further than some mild interest of the young generation; very few actually understand the career’s true nature.
In recent years, PR and marcom career paths are very trendy among young people in Vietnam. The profession is often praised for its dynamic and creative working environment, accompanied by opportunities for international exposure. According to a 2019 report from the Center of Manpower Needs Forecasting and Labor Market Information in Ho Chi Minh City (FALMI), from the 2015 to 2020-2025 period, communications/advertising/marketing are the career tracks that attract the most labor. Vietnamese students are fascinated by the ideal image that the media and universities have created for their PR & communications programs. But after graduating and entering the labor market, very few students can accurately define PR. What kind of jobs does this profession entail? What is its role? And what are the fundamental differences between doing in-house PR vs. in an agency?
So would this survey result apply to the Vietnamese people? The answer would possibly be as follows: If asked whether they want to pursue a career in PR, a majority of young people would give it a nod simply because PR is ‘in’ these years. But if you ask the adults who have been working and trying out several different professions, their answers would likely be similar to Singaporeans’ that PR is a non-essential job, since most have no idea about the precise role of PR and what it does.
- “What is PR?” – Defining ‘Public Relations’ and correcting common misconceptions
Most people misunderstand PR. They often assume that it’s a branch of marketing or clump it with advertising altogether. In public forums, the media, or casual conversations, people often say: “This person/company is ‘PR’-ing themselves.” When the term ‘PR’ is used in this sense, its meaning equals ‘advertising.’ However, PR itself is not entirely synonymous with advertising.
The textbook definition of ‘public relations’ is the management of images, reputation and the public’s perception of an individual or brand. The word ‘public’ in ‘public relations’ already depicts that the job involves working with different groups of ‘target public.’ The most common ‘groups of public’ include:
- Clients: To this group, PR is somewhat similar to marketing. This is the most common perception of PR, since the activity is usually associated with brands’ marketing campaigns. Regardless, PR plays a tiny part in the ‘marketing umbrella.’
- Media: Needless to say, the press is a powerful mega-influencer of the public’s narrative, so the main task of the PR people involves working with journalists. In this case, PR is not related to advertising or marketing anymore.
- Employees: If the ‘public’ is internal to the business, then the goal of ‘building relationship’ is to make sure that they are viewing the firm in a positive light. The PR task now is purely internal communications. In such a case, the meaning of PR is even further away from the common perception that PR must be related to marketing or advertising a product or service.
As a result, PR stands as an independent branch on its own. Although it can overlap or give support to marketing or advertising efforts, it isn’t synonymous with either of these two. The purpose of PR is to change the public’s mindset, which can lead to a change in consumer behaviors toward the brand. In contrast with the results of an advertising or marketing campaign (which are specific, measurable, presentable, and comparable), results yielded from PR are subtler and not as timely, just like people’s mindsets don’t easily change overnight. This is because PR mainly takes on behind-the-scene work to support the brand.
- PR can be non-essential, but its unique position and value is irreplaceable
Frankly speaking, PR is not an essential job during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare occupations, such as doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or jobs that help maintain basic living and remote working routines like delivery man, IT supporter, maintenance technician, etc. are in high-demand and thus deemed as ‘essential’. Of course, people are paying more and more attention to their health and try to go about their daily lives during the pandemic.
However, saying that PR is absolutely non-essential or think that it deserves its ‘rock bottom’ status in the occupation hierarchy is flat-out unjust. PR activities can be temporarily stunted during the outbreak. Nonetheless, as we enter the post-pandemic period, then it’s time for PR to shine. Once people return to work and businesses begin to open again, most PR agencies will see a spurt in demand. After a long hiatus, it’s time for brands to make a comeback and remind consumers of who they are. The primary goal now is to build brands’ reputation and bring forth their story to raise brand awareness (instead of attempting to sell, because consumers haven’t recovered fully from the financial impact brought by the outbreak, which heavily affects their spending power.)
Therefore, the post-pandemic period is the prime time for brands to build their images and promote brand values – a.k.a. engaging in PR activities. Do it so that when consumers are ready to return to the shopping market and willing to spend on their favorite brands, their minds have already been ‘primed’ with prior PR efforts.
More than anyone else, PR practitioners understand the purpose and significance of why they do what they’re doing. Yet, the misunderstandings and flawed assumptions still exist among the public about PR, which leads to the lack of respect and recognition that the profession is suffering from. Is there any cure for PR people to clear up the misunderstanding? The second part of this series will discuss several ways that PR agencies and practitioners can do to (ironically) ‘save’ the industry’s own reputation.