Public Relations has come a long way.

Public relations is a great marketing tool for small businesses and is much more effective at reaching consumers than advertising. People remember stories better than taglines and trust articles more than direct mail.

Local media- newspaper, TV and radio- love covering interest stories that involve local small businesses. Small businesses online can earn similar coverage from special interest blogs, Twitter users and other Internet media outlets. Basically, if a small business can craft a meaningful, intriguing story, they can get really useful PR.

Consumers can learn more about a small business through in-depth coverage than they would from a 30-second spot. Good PR helps consumers make more informed decisions by illuminating what makes businesses interesting, such as involvement in charities or social activism.

As great as PR is for businesses, media and consumers today, the discipline has come a long way since its founding in the early years of the 20th century. Then, it was seen as a way to manipulate consumers into consuming more. The father of public relations, Edward Bernays, said of PR:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?

Bernays also asserted,

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”

Certainly, Bernays’ tactics were successful in his day. He was instrumental in popularizing cigarette use among women, and he was horrified to learn that a dog-eared copy of his book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, resided on Joseph Goebbels’ shelf.

But his approach to PR no longer works. After years of being manipulated, consumers grew skeptical of marketing claims. Now consumers do their research and often know more about your products and services than your salespeople do. Effective PR in 2010 means being truthful and crafting stories that are of genuine interest to consumers. Businesses must ensure they are ethical and  respectful of consumers’ rights. Because if they aren’t, consumers will find out, and they will learn that there is such a thing as bad press.

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