Ruta Siliņa: Public relations are the Sun

What are public relations (PR)?

In order to understand and clarify this, we invited Ruta Siliņa, head of the bachelor’s programme in public relations at the Riga Stradiņš University, for an interview.

Which, in your opinion, is the most accurate definition of PR?

It will be a compilation of various definitions. PR is a planned management function that aims to maintain mutually beneficial relations between a client (a company or an institution) and all of the client’s stakeholders – which can be direct customers as well as business partners, staff, competitors, certain social groups, all of which can affect the client in some way. I am particularly stressing the mutual benefits. The more beneficial the relationship is for both sides, the more understanding and tolerant the public will be, which is especially important in moments of crisis.

What qualities should a PR professional have?

Many young people who opt to study PR encounter the question: Why do you want to become a PR professional?, to which they reply, I am outgoing, or I wish to learn to become outgoing, which is why I want to study PR. It must be understood, however, that PR is not some kind of therapy or a personal development course. A PR professional must be someone who is prepared to work. To work a lot. And one must be prepared to shape the image and reputation of a client, not one’s own.
The individual must be willing to learn continuously, as it is an environment that undergoes very rapid transformations, new trends constantly emerge. Something that was a novelty five years ago is now routine. Who would have thought that “fun” things like Twitter and other social networks would become such an important channel of communication?
A PR professional must be aware of not only the way in which society changes but also have a command of various technological things. When I recall my own time in university – we had a subject where we were taught what the internet is. Back then, the internet had just arrived in Latvia, and it seemed completely surreal. Now, no such courses are taught any longer. And if I kept only the knowledge given to me by the university, I simply could not work in this profession anymore. One must keep up with the times.
A PR professional must be someone who constantly learns. Someone who is prepared to take on challenges. He or she must be able to think critically and approach things analytically.
But more than anything else, a PR professional must love people! If you don’t love people, you can’t work in this profession. Because your job is not to be a wooden block. You are not working with machines, you are working with humans, which means you need a very sharp sense of what people are about. And you must love them! Because, if you come to work thinking, oh no, I’ve to deal with them again, this profession will bring you nothing. Only people who love people should work in PR. Otherwise, it will be a torture!

PR means information, persuasion, sorting things out. Which of these methods plays the greatest role in mustering public support for an activity?

That depends on the area in which a company or an institution operates. A monopoly will have needs that are distinct from those of a small enterprise, and an international company will have different needs still. Thus, each of these companies, depending on how large or small they are and on the sector in which they operate, will have their own requirements: some will find it more important to inform, whilst some, to persuade. There is a wonderful chart by Sandra Oliver in which she summarises the entire PR practice, which she has divided into what could be called eight pieces of a pie. She has arranged PR according to rubrics: there is risk communication, which also includes crisis communication; then there is government communication, which has lobbying, government relations or public affairs, etc. And with that comes its own set of tools: media relations, publicity, marketing-related activities. Everyone can select the set that suits them best.

What would you suggest to those entrepreneurs who think that PR can be used to create a reputation quickly?

If anything, a good reputation cannot be created quickly! Only negative reputation can. Yes, I would agree with that. A positive reputation evolves slowly and gradually. It isn’t always a straightforward process. Reputation creation could be compared to mountain climbing: while going up is arduous, falling back down is very quick. We cook up an advertising campaign, we’re in all the media outlets, we invest a lot of cash: look, we have been recognised! But recognition is not the same as reputation.
Reputation will be important to those clients who think in the long term, who want to be needed a year, two, five or ten years from now. Reputation is an investment!

What are the problems PR professionals have to encounter most often in their daily activities?

PR has been ranked one of the most stressful professions. And that is really so. Because one must juggle a number of different tasks at once. Sometimes the fact that the client wants it all right now, right away and maybe even yesterday, can create problems. When that happens, the client must be persuaded that a quick result cannot be obtained here. PR is not a Formula 1 race. Sometimes there is the problem that the client doesn’t quite know what it wants. I have had times where the client says, take us by the hand and lead! But I have to know the direction they wish to go in. What is the proposition? It is my conviction that a company should have a planning document, called a strategy. What kind of development does the company even want? Because the PR must contribute to achieving the major strategic goal of the company. The more a client is aware of its strategic objective and what it wants, the more accurate are the tasks it can assign, and the more content it will be with the outcome achieved. For, if a client gives you vague instructions to go somewhere and not sure where and bring back something, not sure what, then the result will also be worthless.

What is the new generation of PR professionals under your tutelage like?

Many prospective PR students answer the question, why do you want to study PR, saying, I want to be famous, I want to be on TV, I want to go to parties. To be able to do all that, you don’t have to study PR. You can forgo university altogether! This reminds me of something Dennis L. Wilcox said. The image of PR was largely spoiled by the film Sex and the City, in which one of the heroines, Samantha Jones worked in PR. But I will venture that what she did had little to do with PR. They were relations, but I very much doubt that they were PR. J This created an impression in the minds of many young people and entrepreneurs that PR is Samantha Jones. Yet what this character did was certainly no PR.
It was also interesting to observe how a certain segment of society women positioned themselves on the pages of the slightly tabloid lifestyle magazines. At first, they referred to themselves as students. But you can’t be a student for years and years. Then, the next stage was “PR professionals”. I would be quite interested to see what they have created or accomplished in the field of PR.
PR is hard work; it means coming in early and going home late at night, often it also involves work at weekends. Of course, one must know when to just stop and draw the line between work and one’s own life, to avoid burning out. Because the risk of burning out is high in this profession. Still, PR is also very interesting and exciting work.

What do you say to those students who have this distorted image of PR?

The myth that you can become famous by doing PR and you will be on television is indeed a myth. I once had a conversation with third-year students, who asked me: Why did nobody tell us before that it would be this serious? But PR is no trifling matter, it is serious work!
It is easy to see results in marketing. We create an advertising campaign and watch: do results go up or down. Outcomes from PR are not as obvious. Maybe that is what creates this appearance of ease. A gardener mows the lawn, and the result can be seen right away. Whereas, in PR, it is the party-going that is the most visible, and that is how most people perceive PR, wrongly so.

What words are taboo for a PR professional?

I can’t, I don’t want to, I don’t know!
Excuses are the simplest path: I don’t want, I can’t, I don’t know. But that is exactly why you are in PR: to figure out how to do things. You have to talk! Speak with your colleagues. You must allow your colleagues into the information exchange. Because, if you are left alone with your cluelessness, you will be so self-absorbed that you might not see a solution. If you don’t know something, go and ask. Do not be afraid to ask for advice!

For the conclusion, a fairy-tale that wonderfully illustrates what PR is about.

Once upon a time the Sun entered a wager with the North Wind to see who is stronger. The North Wind said, I am more powerful, whereas the Sun said, no, I am more powerful.

A man walked along the road, and the two made a wager: he who makes the man take off his coat will be the more powerful one. The North Wind began to blow his frosty gusts, and the man only wrapped himself tighter in his coat. The North Wind blew even harder, and the man pulled the coat even more tightly around himself. Then the North Wind blew harder yet, making the man wrap himself up more tightly again and stoop forward while walking to keep the cold from entering behind the collar.
But then the Sun came out. It became warmer. The man straightened himself out. The Sun shone more brightly, and the man unbuttoned his coat collar. Then the Sun shone even more brightly, and the man opened his coat. The Sun shone again, and the man took off his coat.

The moral of the story: a lot more can be achieved with kindness than with aggression.
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