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Demystifying Public Relations

Exploring the changes occurring in the public relations industry.

Uber’s PR Blunder Means PR Success for Lyft

Uber, the once popular taxi service that comes in the form of an app, has suffered loses after protests against President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from entering the United States. Beginning on January 28th, protests formed in airports and cities as people spoke out against the “ban” and for the individuals being held because of it. Soon after, the #DeleteUber social media campaign trended on twitter. It became common to see pictures posted of people deleting their Uber app.

So how did the much used service run into this crisis? When the protests began, “a union representing taxi drivers in New York City issued a statement refusing to pick up passengers at Kennedy Airport — the center of the protest — from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.,” the New York Times reported. However, Uber then tweeted at 7:30 that “it had turned off its ‘surge pricing’ feature, a function that increases the cost of a ride during times of high demand.” Which meant that it was still running in the middle of a taxi strike. People were outraged, seeing it as Uber attempting to capitalize on the strike. As the New York Times said, Uber’s reputation for condoning aggressive tactics may have finally come back to haunt the company.

Needless to say, the event was a public relations nightmare for Uber. In an emailed statement to Business Insider, Uber said it didn’t halt surge pricing to traffic more business: “‘We’re sorry for any confusion about our earlier tweet — it was not meant to break up any strike,’ the company said. ‘We wanted people to know they could use Uber to get to and from JFK at normal prices, especially last night.’”

To make matters worse for Uber, competitor Lyft jumped at the opportunity, using the incident to generate positive publicity. Early Sunday morning, the co-founders of Lyft, John Zimmer and Logan Green, wrote a blog post on the company site condemning the ban: “Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.” Claiming “we stand with you,” they pledged to donate $1million over the next four years to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Fortune reports that over 200,000 customers have deleted their Uber accounts, though the deleted accounts would amount to 0.5% of total users. Because of the negative backlash, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick left President Trump’s business advisory council in an attempt to appease consumers, as many had been upset prior to this incident that he was on it. Forbes states that Uber has also set up a $3 million legal defense fund for immigration defense and services. Despite these attempts to patch up the issue, however, many are still not pleased.

This thorny event provides insight into the present atmosphere of public relations. Even though the original problematic tweet was most likely an attempt to inform consumers that the decision to turn off surge pricing was made specifically to avoid profiting from increased demand during the protest–as an Uber spokesperson told Fortune–the message didn’t take clarity or timing into account. The blunder allowed Lyft to swoop in and create a positive image for itself, made clear by the inclusive tone used by Lyft co-founders in an attempt to rouse camaraderie. With the Internet, faults are made immortal and trending hashtags serve as a constant reminder of mistakes, ensuring that attempts at damage control is likely to fall on deaf ears. This event serves as a reminder that bad press for one can be an opportune moment for another.

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Fake Facts: A PR Nightmare or Wish-Come-True?

While we always knew the Internet waters could be a bit murky when diving for truths, the recent oil spill of fake news and “alternative facts” has the nation questioning what to believe. Given the nature of public relations, which you can read about in my last post, it might seem like a blessing; after all, PR revolves around persuading the public towards a specific point of view.

Except not quite. Politico reported the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) disavowal of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer when he defended President Donald Trump’s claims of the inauguration crowd size and labeled reports of the size being smaller than Obama’s or the Women’s March on Washinton as “alternative facts.” The PRSA sets a code of ethics for the PR profession and was not thrilled with what they heard. “PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts,” says Jane Dvorak, the society’s chair, wrote in a statement. “We applaud our colleagues and professional journalists who work hard to find and report the truth.”

Even before this event, PR experts and companies have been pouncing onto the topic, discussing how to confront fake news and what it means for the PR industry. Robert Wynne, public relations professional, wrote about the issue in Forbes: “In a world with different sets of beliefs and facts for different audiences, the micro-targeting means different messaging for almost everything,” he states, dubbing it “the end of mass persuasion.” He attributes this to social media’s ability of bombarding the consumer with what they want to hear, whether it’s accurate or not. Though there has always been false information floating around, social media intensifies the concentration of fake news and tailors it to the individual. Add this to the current fracturing of trust in traditional media, and you have the nation disagreeing on what once were fundamental facts.

Dorothy Crenshaw, founder of the PR Consulting agency Crenshaw Communications, questioned how to separate PR from propaganda and wrote a list of what an honest PR person can do to fight fake news. She urged professionals not to “cut corners” when checking for inaccuracies, and to “hold clients and journalists accountable when it comes to storytelling and fact-checking.” Despite it being difficult to fight web-based rumors that threaten a brand’s reputation without calling attention to them, she calls for public relations personnel to fight swiftly in debunking “lies.” And when it comes to promotions like a study that shows ice cream enhances mental performance—though she says there’s nothing wrong with them—she admits “we do need to be both scrupulous with the facts and transparent about the funding, and consumers of such news should take note of who pays, and who benefits.”

With fake news and alternative facts obscuring the water, trust in media is at an all-time low. It will take precise targeting of messages and careful vigilance of news and trends to combat the current atmosphere of continual doubt. Public relations companies and personnel must adapt, learning how to work within a disbelieving society while simultaneously fighting against the falsehoods permeating it.

What is Public Relations?

It’s a huge industry with thousands of firms nationwide. It’s often brought up when discussing communications and media in classrooms. With context clues, one could assume it has something to do with relating communications to the public. But what exactly does it mean to work in public relations?

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines it as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” It’s all about connecting the business to the public, anticipating and interpreting public opinion and attitudes that could negatively or positively impact the organization. Public relations analyzes how the public would view a plan or action and how it could affect the company.

Not only does the job entail communicating and advising the business, but it also deals with presenting a certain image to the public. The challenge lies in providing people with necessary information while gaining the public’s understanding to further the organization’s aims. This can include: marketing, financial work, fundraising, employee, community or government relations, and other programs.

Forbes lists the essential tools of public relations people:

  • Write and distribute press releases
  • Speech writing
  • Write pitches (less formal than press releases) about a firm and send them directly to journalists
  • Create and execute special events designed for public outreach and media relations
  • Conduct market research on the firm or the firm’s messaging
  • Expansion of business contacts via personal networking or attendance and sponsoring at events
  • Writing and blogging for the web (internal or external sites)
  • Crisis public relations strategies
  • Social media promotions and responses to negative opinions online

Through all of these actions, public relations creates the image for the company and secures its place within the media. Good publicity is key for maintaining favor with the public. Entrepreneur upholds that “the key to securing publicity is identifying your target market and developing a well-thought-out public relations campaign.” Essentially, it’s crafting the face and voice of the company.

Nancy Brenner, who does public relations for Fortune 500 companies, likened the job to working in emergency rooms in an interview for The Guardian: “There’s always a new project, and you need to do triage and assess which ones need instant attention.” She constantly has to network, taking people out to dinner or shows, and keeps up with current news to stay on top of trends and stories that may have a connection for her clients.

So it’s a busy occupation. You have to constantly stay aware of what’s happening in the media, make sure clients are happy, and bolster the image of the business you’re working for. As it’s been starkly shown through our current media and society, keeping the public happy isn’t easy. But for public relations personnel, it’s all just part of the job.

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