Most public relations professionals who have spent more than five years in the industry can share stories about the importance of internal public relations. Most of these tales will tell of how the presence of having a formal internal PR plan saved their jobs or how the lack of a plan cost them their job. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for those who can learn from my mistake, my story falls into the latter category.
My first professional public relations job was at a rural hospital. I was right out of school so I spent most of my time building media lists the old fashioned way, with books and spreadsheets, reading tiny weekly newspapers for mentions of the hospital, and building relationships with reporters. My team and I were very successful, and it especially helped that we were constantly chatting up these small town reporters at Lions Club Events, American Legion luncheons and Chamber of Commerce meetings.
After a few months of being on a first name basis with reporters, the frequency of the positive stories about our hospital in their papers increased, and the opportunity to answer to negative stories was almost always offered before the stories went to press. We would proudly clip these stories from the papers (with scissors), mount them on fancy card stock paper, place them in a binder, and pass the binder around the department. Our backs were constantly sore from all the slapping that ensued as we celebrated how much heavier the clip book was that year than the year before.
Then the lean times came. The CEO of our hospital was a very nice, family oriented man, so when the layoffs began, he would always break the news himself rather than sending a random human resources representative to tell you that your job was no longer necessary. When my turn came, he sat four of us down to break the news. I was 24, a newlywed, and had a small child. I had never been laid off before. He explained that they needed to make cuts. He said that, “during lean times, we don’t cut doctors and nurses; we cut the folks that do the birthday parties.” I’ll never forget that line. How could he think that all that we did for the hospital was throw birthday parties?
At first, I did what most 24 year olds would do. I threw myself a pity party and blamed the evil CEO in the big office down the hall for daring to insult my PR genius. Clearly he wasn’t smart enough to realize how heavy that clip book was. After stewing for a few days, I came to realize that this was not his fault, it was ours. We had failed to present anything to the departments that controlled our budgets that would quantify our existence and our value to the hospital. We did not so much as even drop the clip book on his desk so he could hear how loud the thud was. We simply assumed that he knew those great stories about the hospital didn’t magically appear in the paper.
Eleven years later, I have the knowledge that hindsight can give you, along with the tools that are available to help prevent this year’s 24 year-olds from making the mistake we made.
The bottom line is that if you do not have a formal internal public relations plan that is specifically geared toward educating your company or clients your value, the people in charge of your career will make one for you without your input or expertise. That’s what happened to me. Without any evidence to the contrary presented, it was simply assumed that the PR department’s value to the organization was minimal.
Fast forward twelve years and every time I present MyMediaInfo’s solutions and show our media analytics tools, I think back to that conversation 12 years ago. I’m not sure if a report on influencers, impressions, publicity value, tone, share of voice or prominence of key messages would have saved my job, but I am sure that I was never asked to justify my existence, and my short career went down without a fight. And in the end, I’m thankful for what the experience taught me. I also hope that they found someone else to throw the birthday parties.