Build Your Public Relations Program on Solid Ground, Not on Glitz and Sizzle

Too many people relate public relations with splashy events they think reporters will throng to and write about and — as a result — make their organizations famous and successful.

Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

Effective public relations is not the result of one or more showy events. Quite the contrary. Numerous integrated elements power the engine that moves every successful public relations program forward.

The need to drive that point home occurred for me once again when I was launching a public relations program for a small, New York City community college. Until then, the school had never initiated a cohesive public relations program of any kind.

I developed a 12-month program designed to support the college leadership’s goals to increase student enrollment, bolster the school’s stature as an important community resource and increase local business leaders’ reliance on the school as a rich source of educated employees. The program consisted of many large and small elements including:

  • Establishing the college president, other key administrators and scholastic faculty members as responsive, knowledgeable information sources and professional experts who all New York City news media could call and rely on;
  • Developing media contacts to generate frequent and favorable television, radio, print and Internet coverage to highlight the school’s strengths, courses of study, student successes and newsworthy school activities;
  • Expanding, updating and improving the school’s website to make it an important news and information resource;
  • Working closely with community organizations, libraries and civic centers to educate residents in a variety of “life skills” through free lectures, seminars and continuing education classes;
  • Meeting with local businesses and professional organizations to stay abreast of the business community’s needs for skilled, educated employees.

In short order, the new public relations program got the college on the local media’s radar and began building neighborhood goodwill along with a positive local identity for the college. It also reinforced the school’s reputation among local businesses as a source of talented, educated employees.

Then, by chance, I met with a department head who’d had nothing to do with the initial PR program’s development or determining its objectives. He asked me, “When are you going to do something really big?”

I asked, “What did you have in mind?”

“Let’s throw a party for the neighborhood on the traffic median in front of the college.” (The 20-foot-wide median ran about five city blocks.)

“Why would you want to do that?”

“For the publicity. The whole neighborhood would turn out and have a good time. The newspapers and TV stations would cover it.”

“Why would they want to cover a block party? And what do you expect them to say other than the school threw a big party?”

“Well, you should do something really big.”

We never threw a block party, and this guy was never satisfied with the solid, incrementally expanding and successful public relations program I’d put in motion. Over time the program continued to build the school’s positive reputation as an institution of higher learning and an important resource for local residents and the business community. And, as intended, it helped to increase the school’s student enrollment.

For some people, public relations is all about sizzle and nothing about substance. Sure, a large, meaningful event can jumpstart or enhance a cohesive public relations campaign. But by itself, the public relations impact of a single noisy event is as enduring and meaningful as a puff of smoke.

Remember, effective, long lasting public relations is a continuing, structured process, not a single glitzy event.