PR 101: The Distinction Between Influence and Persuasion

CLEVELAND – As with most highly niched fields, I’m often asked what exactly public relations (PR) entails when discussing work with family, friends and new acquaintances. In an era where we are continually inundated with information and everyone (and their mother) can self-publish, one of the biggest challenges for those in our industry involves establishing and identifying authority, expertise and credibility from an increasingly inflated and saturated market of opinion makers and consumers.

The statistics are staggering. During a recent workshop with students from my alma mater, Baldwin-Wallace College, I shared Erik Qualman’s video the Social Media Revolution, based on his best-selling book Socialnomics. Qualman illustrates how the balance of power has shifted from big business to the public sphere – and how the evolving humanization of brand can, quite literally, confound organizations into silence, inaction and ultimately, obscurity (I highly recommend reading Brian Solis’ Socialized Media: The Powerful Effects of Online Brand Interaction).

The days of corporate malfeasance and lack of public accountability or integrity are over, and companies that adjust to the evolving desires, needs and demands of a newly unified, discriminating social landscape will understand the importance of maintaining relevance and longevity, both on and offline.

Over the last decade in retail and service industries, my time within cultures like Abercrombie & Fitch, Journeys, American Eagle Outfitters and other corporate heavyweights sharply contrasted with small businesses and B2B. Naturally, I developed a marked appreciation for the distinction between sales, advertising or promotion and PR/marketing. Cold-selling, hard-selling and cheesy taglines (personal favorite at A&F: Are you Fierce?…) were methods that revealed the difference between persuasion and Influence, one of my favorite texts during college by Robert Cialdini.

Sasha 'Fierce' Sued by A&F for 'Fierce' Copyright Infringement

Often times the focus wasn’t on the face of the individual; it was making the sale or commission numbers for the day, week, month, year — and by whatever means necessary to reach the bottom line. And, pardon the elitism, but it was desperate and awkward –arguably too transparent. Albeit, on a lighter note I learned the art of steamrolling through rejection (“how many Nos did you get to today?”). So it was pretty profound when I first heard a boss say “Don’t pitch me a product, tell me a story…”

The Dawn of Inbound Marketing and PR is significant because it has signaled a departure from the staunch marketing mix (product, price, position/place, promotion) of sales and advertising (which has its value) to a still broader concept, a sort of new Six Sigma: brand, web development, search, social media, content and PR. In essence, marketing and PR casts a wider net, by utilizing technology and social media platforms to cultivate dynamic and diverse skill sets.

Nuances of social media are more tactical, grounded in listening and a strategic, proactive response to core, engaged audiences rather than megaphoning to the masses. Now more than ever, taking the time and effort to foster genuine, meaningful relationships with clients, employees, prospects and peers is not an ideal; it’s imperative for the long-term success of a business.

Thus, hybrid professionals are viable because their versatile backgrounds in advanced technical and creative fields (PR, marketing, journalism, business, communications, sociology, media relations, broadcasting, etc.) endow them with more options. Entrepreneurs will transition from writers to producers, incorporating the competencies necessary to become builders and catalysts of their unique artistic and practical visions. Whether filling a need or role within an organization or creating their own, these individuals will effectively pioneer higher risk, thought-leadership and innovation in the market, and often champion their own causes with social activism and in their extended communities.

As Paul Roetzer mentions in 5 Business Lessons I Learned From the LeBron James Collapse (after Cleveland’s dismal showing in the 2010 playoffs), high-performing, A-players in the industry will

“Contribute more, innovate more, work smarter, earn more trust, display more resourcefulness, take more initiative, develop better business strategies, articulate their vision more passionately, implement change more effectively, deliver higher-quality work, demonstrate greater teamwork, and find ways to get the job done in less time with less cost.”

The notion of brand has invariably altered our perceptions and experience of the pragmatic, public, private and personal. Simply put, the rules have changed, in life and business.

This ubiquity of the Internet requires today’s practitioners to understand the ways in which we search for, target and engage people, products, places and the news. Never before has knowledge been this readily available — and with such privilege comes the responsibility for professionals to tailor their story in measurablemeaningful and memorable ways — or someone else will.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your ideas on this.

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