PR: The Art of Engagement
ONE OF THE SERVICES DH offers is public relations. You might say it’s how we got our start—that it’s part of our DNA. But PR is more than a service. It’s a discipline, and it informs how we do everything.
Over the last 18 years, we’ve grown a lot as a firm. We’ve evolved using an integrated approach, blending PR with advertising, branding, research, and digital. We believe that when all these pieces work seamlessly together, you have a program that supports business goals and achieves results.
We sat down with Michelle Hege and Christine Varela to get their thoughts on public relations, the DH approach, and how they see the PR industry changing.
DH: First, what is your definition of public relations?
Michelle: People often associate PR with media relations, but it’s actually an entire discipline that seeks to create two-way mutually beneficial relationships with an organization’s audiences. This is powerful because strong relationships are often one of the most valuable assets a company possesses. A true PR program identifies goals for each audience and defines how to create real engagement. This goes far beyond advertising, which is traditionally a one-way information channel that focuses on awareness and information transfer. Engagement is a buzz word you hear a lot today—but it’s a concept that has always been a part of public relations.
Christine: I think of the PR profession as the conscience of the organization. We have a code of ethics we follow. We ask organizations if their actions match their stated values. It can be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s a necessary one. If the answer is no, we push back. That’s not always considered within the PR scope, but it’s the value PR needs to bring.
DH: Do you consider yourself a consultant?
Christine: Absolutely. Often clients know they need something—there’s a threat or an opportunity—but they might not know what they need, which is where we come in. We assess the issue and make recommendations. We have the ability to bring perspective from outside the organization. We monitor trends across many industries and bring additional ideas. And depending on the scope the client needs, we might recommend PR, research, branding, or a blend of strategies. It’s one of the strengths of our approach and team. We have expertise across disciplines.
DH: What do you think is the future of PR?
Michelle: As consumers are inundated with messages, PR is becoming more important than ever for building trust between the consumer and company. It used to be that mainstream media was an extremely important message carrier. With the fragmentation of the media industry, paired with the evolution of social media and the rise of citizen journalists, consumers have become more and more savvy about who they trust and where they get information. It’s no longer enough to rely on traditional channels. And it’s more important than ever to engage a range of stakeholders who have influence and can carry your message or be a part of the dialogue. Channels of communication and the best strategies to reach different audiences are evolving constantly. It’s our job to stay on top of these trends.
Christine: Consumer trust and confidence have eroded. People are more skeptical. Brands need to align with ways consumers think and see the world. If the brand is outside the value system, it’s not likely consumers are going to choose it. Companies need strong strategies for telling their own stories and creating engagement, especially as audiences segment further and get narrower in their focus. And because of social media and all those communication channels that are available, people are talking about companies more and more, and if the company is not part of that conversation or dialogue, it can hurt them.
DH: What differentiates DH from other firms?
Michelle: PR as an academic discipline has a very defined approach to remove the guesswork. You don’t guess how your audience perceives an issue. You define it. It’s important to understand an audience’s knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes. If you don’t have that, developing and measuring an effective program is difficult.
Christine: Strategy is always at the center of what we do. We look at the opportunity or the problem. We think about an organization’s business goals. Then we work through all the tactics. We have a larger toolbox because we have a blended approach. We don’t think, “Oh, we’ll solve that with PR.” We don’t have that bias. We use the tactics that will get the best outcome for the client. That’s the heart of our approach. We’re a team of strategists. Not every firm can say that.