By Nicole Zahn
“Oh you’re majoring in public relations…what is that?” If I had a dollar for every time someone gave me a confused look or questioned me when I told them I’m majoring in PR, I wouldn’t need a degree.
When explaining to friends and family what exactly Public Relations is, I instantly think back to the Principles of Public Relations course I took freshman year and fish through the numerous definitions. According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Simple enough. Once explained, some friends and family act as if they know exactly what I’m talking about, but I can tell they still don’t. That is when I resort to the infamous Chipotle E.coli example. “Do you remember when Chipotle had the E.coli outbreak and they closed for a day to re-analyze their company?” That’s when I see a light bulb turn on.
Public Relations is not only benefiting or fixing a company’s image to its public, but also keeping those relationships they have with them. Many people have negative perceptions about PR professionals, stating that we SPIN information and participate in unfairness. That certainly is not that case today. When speaker Cheryl Lambert, Ph.D. spoke at the PRSSA “How It’s Handled” meeting Wednesday, she explained how she breaks down PR to her friends and family (who many to this day still ask her what she does). “I usually explain PR as a magazine,” said Lambert.
The cover of the magazine can be viewed as public relations and the back of the magazine is more of the advertising. The front cover is the story that was pitched to the media by a public relations professional, which has more credibility with the general public. The back of the magazine, advertising, is the result of advertisers, who have more control over their message, but less credibility.
When the E.coli crisis communication occurred at Chipotle, public relations professionals researched and conducted a plan to keep its customers happy. At first, they didn’t try to cover up their mistake. They admitted to the issue during a press conference, following the closing of more than 2,000 Chipotle restaurants. This bold action proved to the public how serious they were about the situation. Their second plan of action: Chipotle announced a $10 million program that would help local food suppliers understand new safety regulations and offered fully paid sick days to its employees. The third part of the plan: Bringing their customers back into the store. What better way to do that? Free lunch. Chipotle offered a free burrito to anyone who texted “rain check”.
The Chipotle example is just one of millions of PR crisis communication strategies that provides an adequate example of what those PR professionals may do. We engage, we communicate, we build relationships, we plan, and most importantly, we create.
Nicole Zahn is a junior public relations major and PRSSA Kent's VP of Fundraising and Community Outreach. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.