Imagine you’re on a tour of a theme park in an electrified Ford Explorer, when a giant, completely real Tyrannosaurus rex spots your vehicle and goes in for the attack.
Freeze. You have two options here:
1. You attempt to escape the encounter, knowing you have a 93% chance of injury.
2. You go back in time and are adequately informed of the T. rex’s location so you can avoid the area and not be attacked.
Reactive and proactive PR are kind of like that.
A company is reactive when they have to deal with existing problems or issues. A company is proactive when steps are taken to prevent or avert problems before they develop.
Unfortunately, the world of public relations is often a reactive one. This can be for a variety of reasons—lack of time, resources, freedom, or even inability to see obstacles of any kind. Sometimes reactive PR is simply unavoidable: a storm hits, an employee gets injured, or testing led by your company causes the cloning and repopulation of dinosaurs on the small Pacific island of Isla Nublar.
While occasionally necessary, reactive PR can make an organization appear self-interested because the majority of comments made can tie back to an excuse or failure to control conversation topics. It can also demonstrate an inability to plan ahead, casting a negative light on a company in the eyes of customers, consumers, and bystanders.
Many smart organizations practice proactive PR. Rather than fighting or accommodating to change, they try to influence change by orchestrating the process. They influence the public perception of their brands rather than taking a passive approach.
An Example 65 Million Years in the Making
Undertaking a proactive PR strategy can manifest in various ways, but all require anticipation of the future.
Consider the contrast between cloning financier/dinosaur theme park owner John Hammond and chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm. Following a park incident and the death of an employee, Hammond asks three specialists, including Malcolm, to visit and endorse the park to ease the worries of potential investors.
Hammond is only focused on the reactive side of the incident, i.e., covering up the fatality and focusing on the dinosaur park opening. Dr. Malcolm understands the larger scope. His main focus—that the scientists were so preoccupied with cloning dinosaurs that they didn’t stop to consider the consequences—hails from the proactive sphere. Dr. Malcolm takes a step back and examines the surroundings and challenges that could lie ahead. Thus, he can clearly see what the park needs to do (or not do) to fare well in the long term.
Unleash the Beasts
There are simple steps to launching a more proactive PR approach:
- First, define your organization’s general objectives, identify your audience, and establish the most effective way to reach that audience. This allows you to anticipate, plan, and aid whatever reaction they may have to newsworthy content.
- Next, develop the tone of voice in which your brand will speak consistently, the channels you’ll communicate in, and any specific dates (if necessary) on which it’s vital to reach your audience.
- Finally, establish a timeline to execute any relevant proactive activities. This can include items such as a media list, press releases, event planning and logistics, crisis management planning, and media pitches. Not only will these tactics provide an organization with smart PR content; they will also supply the foundation for when reactive public relations is unavoidable.
Together, these building blocks lead to a much more strategic approach to PR. You can deliver your own messages to the media, get timely feedback on content, and better manage the conversation at large.
In the end—similar to a Velociraptor systematically testing an electric fence for weaknesses—having a proactive approach to public relations is just smart. Solely reactive approaches can make a business appear as though they’re only worried about themselves, rather than being concerned about the public at large. And where some organizations spare no expense to keep the media and general public in the dark about internal problems, the future of the industry lies in open and strategic communications.
So, as you begin any communications planning, remember to outline a proactive PR approach. Because no matter how hard you try, almost all companies will be newsworthy at one point in their existence.