It is not unusual to talk with child welfare professionals who are quick to acknowledge the value and importance of public relations only to hear them go on to say something like, “We are very proud of our letterhead, brochures, advertising, and speakers bureau. Our public relations are important and we believe in doing it right.” They may go on to talk about using mailing lists and personal visits to market their services or special advertising campaigns to get the story out to potential foster families. These are, of course, all very important activities but fall far short of a well-considered public relations program.
This serious misunderstanding of public relations and its critical role in achieving agency excellence is based on a confusion of terms. First, public relations is not advertising, although advertising is usually an element in a successful public relations program. Advertising is intended to call public attention to a product, service, event, or opportunity. The public or a segment of the public is made aware of whatever is being advertised with the goal of their buying the product, using the service, attending the event, or taking advantage of the opportunity. Most brochures, newspaper ads, TV and radio spots, many signs, and some presentations to groups and organizations are advertising.
Public relations is not “public information” either, although effective public information activities are critical to successful public relations. Many agencies have a Public Information Officer (PIO) who is responsible for informing the public. This function may include, for example, the development of an informative brochure on an agency-related topic such as child abuse or teenage sexuality. The goal is to inform the public or a segment of the public about something of potential interest or importance to them. If successful, they will be better informed. Most speakers’ bureau activities, radio and TV interviews, calls from reporters, and contacts by community groups and organizations are public information opportunities. Handling them well is essential.
Finally, public relations is not marketing, although no agency, public or private, can achieve excellence in today’s service environment without well-developed marketing expertise. It helps to think of marketing taking place within a market. In this sense, a market consists of those people (and organizations) who will potentially do business with the agency, to the agency’s benefit. It also consists of those people who may influence market participants to refrain from doing business with the agency.
For example, one market might be potential customers and other providers of the services the agency provides or wants to provide. Another market might be potential foster parents and other agencies who are recruiting foster parents. Potential employees and other employers are a significant market for most agencies as is the resource market that includes government and private fund sources and everyone else they may choose to fund with limited dollars.
Even though the focus here is on public relations and not specifically on marketing, it is nonetheless worthwhile to at least remind you of the first law of marketing: Marketing Begins At Home. Be sure that your agency’s marketing plan starts with keeping the staff you have, the foster parents you have, the customers you have, and the resources you have. Just remember that the marketing plans of other agencies have, as at least their second strategy, taking them away from you. As you will see, successful public relations likewise starts at home.